August 25, 2009

Newsmaker Interview: Solar America City/Houston: Space City Going Solar

I was born and raised in Houston, now the fourth largest city in the U.S., currently the largest city in Texas, and historically known by its denizens as ‘the energy captial of the world.’ Pedestrian friendliness-challenged, it’s the only one of three Texas Solar America Cities (Austin, San Antonio) without a municipal utility, but that’s…

I was born and raised in Houston, now the fourth largest city in the U.S., currently the largest city in Texas, and historically known by its denizens as ‘the energy captial of the world.’ Pedestrian friendliness-challenged, it’s the only one of three Texas Solar America Cities (Austin, San Antonio) without a municipal utility, but that’s not deterring its plans to solarize Space City.

I was elated when Houston became a DOE Solar America City in 2008, thinking, perhaps, that solar could happen in an oil and gas-centric city like Houston. Delighted? Absolutely. Prepared for a challenge? Definitely.

Rich Haut, senior research scientist with the Houston Advanced Research Center (HARC), wrote the proposal, an ambitious plan to solarize Houston.

“The City of Houston already had a commitment to renewable energy, using wind to supply a significant portion of its power,” said Haut. “It just made sense to look at the other forms of renewable energies to complement the overall energy supply.”

The Solar Houston Initiative, a diverse group of Houston area stakeholders, including the University of Houston, BP, CenterPoint Energy, the Houston Renewable Energy Group, NASA, Houston Community College, the Houston Endowment, Habitat for Humanity, the Houston Independent School District, the Greater Houston Builders Association and others, is the backbone of the Initiative.

“HARC’s Rich Haut has taken a leading role in this program,” said Gavin Dillingham, Director of Special Projects at City of Houston. “In addition to chairing the Solar Houston Advisory Council’s meetings and helped in facilitating the development and launch of the 100 kW PV system on the George R. Brown Convention Center, Rich has also managed the development of the Solar Houston’s Initiative Plan.”

The City’s Solar Plan makes a compelling case for Houston to become a word leader in solar energy.

Already, Houston universities conduct research on solar materials and processes and collaborate on that research. Just recently, the University of Houston announced its new Energy Research Park.

K-12 students are exposed to solar energy through math and science curriculum. Students at The Betsy Ross School learned about the power of wind and solar through the energy station they built in 2008, made possible by grants from the BP’s A Plus for Energy grant program.

Entrepreneurial activity in solar power development is robust at the Houston Technology Consortium (HTC). Ignite Solar is an HTC start-up company, focused on the commercialization of tracking systems.

The Port of Houston is the major point of entry for imported commodity solar components.

Haut outlined a comprehensive and plausible solar road map for Houston through five key activities: public policy, high visibility installation locations, public outreach, education and training, K-12 curriculum.

According to Haut, some of these areas are further along than others.

“Houston got a late start on its Solar America Cities work because of Hurricane Ike and the clean up in its aftermath,” said Dick Fate, Sandia National Labs and Tiger Team contact. “But the city has lots of energy for solar and I’m expecting very productive progress from it.”

Progress indeed. Just last month, a 100kW PV installation was inaugurated atop the George R. Brown Convention Center (GRB).

“I’m convinced that the Convention Center is just an early example of where Houston intends to go,” said Fate.

Installation of the two, 50-kilowatt solar systems on the 16-acre roof of the convention center was funded primarily by an $850,000 grant from Houston Endowment, Inc., a leading philanthropic foundation. Other funding came from the Houston Architecture Foundation ($10,000), American Institute of Architects/Houston Chapter ($10,000), and BP ($100,000), for a total budget of $970,000.

According to Haut, both systems installed on the GRB are actually performing better than expected.

“We will be performing an engineering analysis of the systems over the next several months,” he said. “The thin film has produced 5,079 kWh so far and the polycrystalline 3,206 kWh so far. We had to shut down the polycrystalline for a while due to some electrical issues, but it’s up and running again.”

It’s nice to have a 100kW PV system on the Convention Center, but with private funding, it’s not necessarily sustainable.

What about local utility incentives? Not in Houston.

Houston proper is served by CenterPoint (the wires division of the old HL&P), which currently doesn’t have a PV incentive program. Statewide incentive program? No, though it came perilousy close to happening during the 2009 legislative session.

It’s federal or private funding for solar in Houston, or Power Purchase Agreements (PPA), at least for the moment.

Federal funding, through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (H.R. 1), allows taxpayers eligible for the federal renewable energy production tax credit (PTC) to take the federal business energy investment tax credit (ITC) OR to receive a grant from the U.S. Treasury instead of taking the PTC for new installations. The new law also allows taxpayers eligible for the business ITC to receive a grant from the U.S. Treasury Department instead of taking the business ITC for new installations.

The Texas Emerging Technology Fund, created specifically for , has been shy on renewable energy awards. According to Haut, the Initiative worked with a school to submit a grant request to the State Energy Conservation Office (SECO).

“I’m making a strong push to identify new residential financing opportunities, as well as emergency applications for solar in Houston,” said Dillingham.

Dillingham is referring to a tax financing mechanism that allow property owners to borrow money to pay for renewable energy and/or energy-efficiency improvements. The amount borrowed by a property owner is usually repaid through an increased property tax assessment over a period of years. In general, local governments, like cities and counties that choose to offer property tax financing, must be authorized to do so by state law. To date, fourteen states (CA, CO, IL, LA, MD, NM, NV, OH, OK, OR, TX, VA, VT and WI) have enacted such policies since 2008.

“In this economic climate, it’s been difficult for the City to provide the direct financing through a bond issuance; however, that is still on the table. There is some discussion of doing a lease type program, financed by a local solar company, but that is still in the very beginning stages. The biggest surprise is the level of enthusiasm in the City for solar. Residents and businesses want to do solar, and companies want to move to Houston to help build the industry. We are still just one step shy from making that a reality.”

Financial barriers aside, educating the public about the benefits of solar is another roadblock.

“The current focus is gathering data in the Houston area concerning the amount of knowledge people have about solar and its application,” said Dillingham. “Solar is still expensive, but there are those early adopters in the greater Houston area that are taking the leap. Further, the types of applications are increasing, such as space and water heating, that will enable solar to be more readily deployed.”

To understand Houstonian’s solar awareness, some 1,000 CenterPoint Public Utility residential customers will be surveyed via telephone. “The questions, developed with input from the Houston Solar Initiative participants, will help us focus the needs for public outreach,” said Haut. “We want to know how, for example, the annual solar tour is recognized and received.”

The lack of financial incentives hasn’t deterred Houston. The Solar Houston Initiative is pushing ahead with their Plan, targeting Houston’s solar installer community.

“In partnership with Texas Renewable Energy Education Consortium (TREEC) and Texas State Technical College/Waco, ADVEN, LLC will offer a one-week, NABCEP-approved Solar Electric Installer Training courses to prepare students for the Entry Level NABCEP Certificate of Knowledge Exam,” said Dillingham.

The City is also working with Houston Community College/Northeast Energy Institute to develop a solar curriculum. And working with DOE’s Tiger Team and CH2M Hill, an initial workforce assessment will be completed later this year to learn about new solar workforce possibilities in the oil and gas capital of the world.

According to Haut, the advisory committee met and approved a draft curriculum that meets the training and education needs for entry level technicians in the field.

“The Energy Institute provides entry-level and advance training options for learners looking to enter the energy sector and advancement opportunities for those already employed in related industries,” he said. “The solar workforce assessment results will be used to finalize the development of the certificate program related to solar energy.”

The Solar Houston Initiative is also targeting Homeowners Associations (HOA’s) ensuring that deed restrictions allow solar installations.

“Since Houston has no zoning,” said Haut, “the HOA’s are able to control the look and feel of their communities through the enforcement of deed restrictions. The Solar Houston Initiative is reviewing various ways that HOA’s can go beyond allowing solar installations and actually promote solar power. Through our website, we’ll assist residents, businesses and public officials to understand what solar is all about.”

One of the Tiger Team tasks is to address a solar neighborhood program to determine what it would take to establish a Municipal Utility District (MUD) for the supply of solar energy. The Tiger Team will investigate the conceptual design of a 1 – 10 MW solar system and explore options on how a MUD could be established and run to deliver the power to a community.

“The Solar America Cities Initiative has helped us increase solar awareness in the City,” said Haut. “We’ve been able to get the Greater Houston Partnership to identify solar as a priority for their legislative issues. It has also enable us to demonstrate that renewable energy is a key part of the Energy Capital. For example, Vestas, the wind energy company, selected Houston as their U.S. headquarters – partly because Houston is a Solar America City and concerns all energy production businesses.”

“I’m very impressed with the people there and their willingness to think on a scale that will impact such a large city and the state of Texas,” said Fate.