Solarize Plano Initiative Exceeds Installation Expectations in Energy-rich Texas

According to the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts website, “A study commissioned by the State Energy Conservation Office (SECO) in the mid-1990s found that Texas has 250 “quads” of solar energy accessible per year. Given that one quad is one quadrillion British thermal units (BTUs) of energy — enough to meet the annual needs of about 3 million people — Texas’ solar energy potential is enormous.”

Excited by the multi-gigawatt energy potential of that remote astronomical nuclear power plant we call the sun, Plano Solar Advocates (PSA) earlier this year launched a Solarize Plano effort to establish a local version of the U.S. Department of Energy’s SunShot Initiative in the Dallas suburbs. Community response in the politically conservative suburbs to the volume discount solar purchase program was enthusiastic, exceeding organizers’ expectations.

“It’s been a great experience, very exciting,” states Larry Howe, a former telecom industry product design manager, who, along with PSA member Bob Litwins, spearheaded the solarize project.

Within a few months of initiation, Solarize Plano signed 120 kilowatts (kW) of installation contracts at rates reduced some 20-percent below normal retail costs. Coupled with potential incentives (rebates) from utilities Oncor and CoServ, along with 30 percent federal tax credits and net metered compensation, this Texas version of community bulk-purchase solar adds momentum to the promising new Solarize deployment strategy.

Implemented thus far in Portland, Oregon, Santa Barbara, California, Colorado, Washington state, Massachusetts, Summit County, Utah, Plano now joins the nationwide solarize movement by offering participating residents solar energy at well below the Texas average of $3.90 per installed watt as referenced in the recent Tracking the Sun VI report.

Modifying vendor selection criteria from solarize efforts in Seattle and Summit County, Utah, Plano Solar Advocates orchestrated a spirited Request for Proposal (RFP) process that resulted in bids from seven solar installation contractors. Axium Solar of Plano was selected. The solar installation company conducted fifty site assessments at area homes resulting in twenty-five signed commitments capable of generating 160,000 annual kilowatt hours (kWh) of electricity.

Spurred by the enthusiastic response to the project, Howe and Litwins are encouraging other neighborhoods and communities across the state to launch their own solarize projects. Meanwhile, Plano Solar Advocates was recently honored with the 2013 Environmental Community Award by the city for their ongoing community solar energy education efforts.

The DOE SunShot Initiative provides an innovative bulk purchase approach designed to remove barriers to solar adoption by reducing the initial up-front costs of installing solar. Here is a link to the DOE National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s (NREL) Solarize Guidebook, the blueprint for the program, and a video on the project.

Howe and Litwins collaborated with the Live Green in Plano city sustainability office in raising awareness and legitimacy for the project. The North Texas Renewable Energy Group (NTREG), a chapter of the Texas Solar Energy Society, also provided support.

PSA generated publicity for the project through Live Green newsletters, local media, social media, monthly organizational meetings and word of mouth. When a critical mass was achieved, PSA guided homeowner candidates through decision points and ushered interested residents and solar contractors through the following RFP process in which they:

  • Instructed interested residents to conduct “homework assignments” to assess their energy usage history and projected needs.
  • Identified the desired percentage of annual energy consumption in kWh for solar offset.
  • Verified the total kilowatts (kW) of installed solar in the pool of applicants (more kW = lower costs).
  • Verified the number of structures/residences receiving panels.
  • Generated a Request for Proposal (RPF) leveraging terminology from existing templates in other solarize projects.
  • Generated a list of contracting companies.
  • Distributed the RPF to contractors.
  • Organized an RPF Review Team/committee from project participants.
  • Assisted the RFP Team with evaluating RPF bid proposals.

Once selected, Axium Solar conducted site assessments examining the following parameters:

  • Identified the roof space area available for solar panel installation.
  • Ensured low to non-existent roof shading and south-facing orientation.
  • Ensured the roof was structurally sound enough to support projected solar panel system.
  • Ensured the electric panel box possesses available breaker slots.
  • Clarified installation incentives and financing options available from the contractor and/or utility.
  • Explained the net metering compensation package, if any, from the utility/retail electric provider (REP).

Larry Howe states that “residents in the RFP group did a great job of navigating and evaluating the relatively complex vendor bid proposals.”

To get the best bulk rate on installations, Howe explains, “A tradeoff exists from the vendor’s perspective between the total amount of kilowatts desired by a group of buyers and the number of sites being fitted with panels. Vendors naturally prefer to install more kilowatts on fewer sites. Ultimately, however, it is the total installed capacity that has the greatest impact on increasing the volume discount.” As a result of this tradeoff, prices were arrived at through a “tiered” rate structure based on total installed capacity in kilowatts.

Participants can obtain financing for the installations through the City of Plano’s Smart Energy Loan Program. A prerequisite to secure those loans is a Texas Home Energy Audit designed to assess and “tighten the envelope” of the residence before determining the true net energy needs of the home. Achieving zero net energy from fossil fuel generated sources is the ultimate sustainable, carbon neutral goal. Local construction code permitting and grid interconnection logistics are handled through Axium Solar.

Plano Solar Advocates expects to build on this initial run and conduct subsequent rounds of the solarize initiative. News of the project is expected to expand awareness and therefore increase the pool of interested parties and kilowatts on the table, resulting in further cost reductions.

As installations launch in the winter of 2013-14, interested parties can track progress of the Solarize Plano rollout at the Open PV Project website. 

Lead image: Texas ranch via Shutterstock

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Michael G. Albrecht is a freelance writer living in Austin, Texas. A member of the Texas Renewable Energy Industries Association and the Texas Solar Energy Society, Mr. Albrecht monitors and reports on developments in the renewable energy-smart grid field.

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