In November of 2012, the Austin Local Solar Advisory Committee (LSAC) and its 20 members from industry, commercial and residential building owners, financial institutions and others, released its strategic plan and recommendations on increasing the use of solar power in Austin, the principal one of which was to raise the goal for solar power from 200 MWs of solar power by 2020, to 400 MWs of solar power by that date. Earlier this week, at the City Council Emerging Technology and Telecommunications Committee meeting, both Austin Energy, represented by Debbie Kimberly, Vice President of Distributed Energy Services, and several members of the LSAC, including vice-chair Colin Meehan, formerly with Environmental Defense Fund and now with Comverge, an energy management company, addressed the recommendations made by the Committee and came up with a date by which Austin Energy would respond officially: October.
During the meeting this week, Kimberly said Austin Energy has already moved forward at least partially on a number of the recommendations, including coming up with a five-year plan to gradually and predictably reduce residential and commercial incentives and project five-year solar goals as part of that process, introduce more solar-freindly financing options and create a path for community solar and for non-profits and smaller commercial entities to take advantage of incentives. Kimberly announced that Austin was increasing solar power through Austin Energy programs and incentives and that there were currently 58 MWs of solar installed in the Austin area, including the 30 MW Webberville plant, and 18 MWs of rooftop installations at residential, commercial and government buildings, or about 1/4 quarter of the current 200 MW goal. About 2.5 MW of rooftop solar was added in FY 2013 alone.
She also said that Austin Energy would be hiring a third-party to assess their current “Value-of-Solar” rate that was adopted as part of the recent rate case, and make recommendations for potential changes. There was concern expressed that Austin Energy might back off of its current rate, and not also consider the economic benefits and community benefits of solar as part of that review. In addition, she announced that they would continue to move forward on Community Solar options, meet with the Local Solar Advisory Committee and begin discussions of whether Austin Energy could consider adopting a larger solar goal, like the 400 MW goal recommended by the LSAC. She said the goal was to have a final report by October 1, 2013.
Meehan and other members thanked both Austin Energy and the Committee for supporting the Local Solar Advisory Committee, and expressed a concern that Austin Energy might backtrack on solar goals and the Value of Solar,and instead told council they should move aggressively forward. They suggested that as rebates were lowered that should not lower overall budgets, but instead spread the incentives and opportunities to more projects. In particular, many members suggested that much of the growth would occur in commercial applications, but getting the incentives and financing correctly managed would be key to increase the amount of solar installations in this sector. As an example, considering credits on bills rather than direct payments could lessen tax implications for some commercial buildings, as well as considering a Value of Solar payment for commercial applications. Others noted that waiting until October to respond to a set of recommendations since November of 2012 was a bit long, especially since the budgets — including solar incentive budgets — for 2014 will be set later this summer.
Council Committee members Morrison, Riley and Spelman indicated they were looking for Austin Energy to work with the LSAC and come up with programs that were cost-effective but kept Austin as a leader in solar power. Sierra Club, Lone Star Chapter and the Austin Beyond Coal team are supporting the 400 MW recommendation and will look forward to working with Austin Energy and City Council to reach this goal by 2020.
— Cyrus Reed, Lone Star Chapter, Sierra Club