June 11, 2008
The state of solar power in Texas

The wind energy industry is going strong in Texas, but the solar energy industry is working to catch up.

Solar advocates say high costs, a lack of incentives and resistant homeowners associations are clouding the nascent industry's future in the state.

At stake is an opportunity for the state, already a major player in the oil and gas industry, to have a prominent role in the growing $10.6 billion global solar energy market, a May report by the state comptroller's office says.

Advocates concede solar is not the end-all solution for the state's energy needs. High costs still keep the technology inaccessible to many consumers, though opinions differ on just how long that will last, given the rapidly rising cost of conventional energy sources.

But incentives and rebate programs to help consumers realize a faster payback on their investments would help, solar advocates say.

A typical solar electric system for a home can cost between $20,000 to $29,000.

Consumers can take a federal tax credit of 30 percent of the cost of a system, up to $2,000, but the tax break expires at year-end. Federal lawmakers have introduced a bill that would extend the break beyond 2008, but Congress hasn't agreed on how to pay for it.

Some states -- but not Texas -- offer rebates funded by a surcharge on electric bills and cover about half the cost of solar systems.

Last year, state Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, introduced a bill that would create a similar program in Texas, but it never made it out of committee and faced opposition from the Association of Electric Companies of Texas.

Walt Baum, executive vice president of the association, said the group opposed the bill mainly because it would have put the money to fund the rebates in the same fund that helps low-income Texans pay their electric bills -- a fund that previously has been diverted for other uses by the state.

"It had nothing to do with us not supporting the solar industry," Baum said. "We had committed to legislative leadership to getting the fund to where it was supposed to go."

Coleman said he plans to reintroduce the bill next year.

"To me it's a no-brainer," he said. "I think it's doable. Almost every company that's a fossil fuel energy producer is investing in the manufacture and sale of solar panels. Shell is, BP is, and so are a lot of others. They understand that they have to diversify their business offerings for a day when fossil fuels are not going to be the biggest part of their business."

Solar seems to be more about end users than providers, as is the case with wind. I agree that making rebates available to mitigate the cost of installing solar panels on existing houses is a good idea. Doing something similar for new construction would also make some sense. I'll keep an eye on these bills in the next legislative session.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on June 11, 2008 to The great state of Texas

another problem facing solar is that so many neighborhoods ban solar energy installations. Weird but true. The HOA bylaws in my current subdivision have a prohibition on solar panels on roofs. And I found the same thing in the bylaws of every other neighborhod with a HOA that we were contemplating moving to.

In the end, we bought a house in an ordinary neighborhood with no HOA so aren't faced with these restrictions. However I'm guessing you'll find them in pretty much every single upscale master planned community of the sort that are replete throughout Texas. Like Cinco Ranch and the Woodlands for example.

Posted by: Kent from Waco on June 11, 2008 9:50 AM

How well do mandated buy-backs perform? I read of Californians who actually profit from their systems, with payback times on the order of ten years. Without surcharges utilities and other consumers coudn't complain much.

Posted by: richard schumacher on June 15, 2008 2:12 PM