Bill Sinkin’s Solar Legacy Lives on in San Antonio

Long-time San Antonio community leader, activist and Sierra Cub member, Bill Sinkin, passed away last week at the age of 100.  Few individuals have the capacity to impact their communities in such a profound manner as Bill Sinkin did for his city and his state.

As has been noted in several glowing rememberances this past week, Bill Sinkin was a banking CEO of a generation past – a man who looked-beyond quarterly bottom-lines to use the power of his financial institution to be a good steward for his community.  His bank provided loans to local neighborhood businesses that were typically under-served by the financial sector and was the first to hire African American employees in Texas.  He also helped found Goodwill Industries of San Antonio and led the effort to bring the 1968 World’s Fair, “HemisFair,” to his hometown.

His most lasting accomplishment, however, may be the one issue he focused on the last 20 years of his life – solar energy.  Sinkin hosted one of San Antonio’s first major solar installations on the rooftop of his bank in the 1980s, and at the age of 86, he started Solar San Antonio, a local non-profit committed to the wide-spread deployment of solar throughout the Alamo city.

“I’m just happy to be involved with such a great issue,” Sinkin said at an awards luncheon in 2002. “Solar offers us all a realistic and economically prudent way to live our lives, and to leave a better world for those who come along after us. It’s the least we can do.”

It is no coincidence then that San Antonio’s municipally-owned electric utility, CPS, is one of the leading providers of solar in the country.  While many utilities in the state during the mid to late oughts were focused on developing more coal, San Antonio decided that it wasn’t going to take that route.  Guided by Solar San Antonio’s advocacy, the city-run utility chose a more forward-thinking course to diversify its energy portfolio.  It created a goal of 400 MW of installed solar power by 2017.

To put that into context, the Texas Legislature in 2007, 2009 and 2011 repeatedly rejected a 500 MW goal for non-wind renewables for the entire state.  In the upside-down world of traditional oil and gas politics, investing in more renewable energy evidently is a tough sell.

The city utility also decided to provide a strong rebate program for customers that would like to install solar panels on their property.  The company boasts 12 MW of installed “distributed” solar capacity with over 1000 customers.  The program is funded by a municipal bond that is used to pay for a series of energy initiatives used to offset 771 MW of electricity – cheaper than funding the construction of a new power plant.

The vision for solar energy that Bill Sinkin brought to his city has paid-off tremendously.  Pursuing the 400 MW goal has led to partnerships with companies that will bring 800 jobs and over $100 million in  capital investments to San Antonio alone.

According to a report on solar jobs released today, the state itself is also making progress, jumping to 6th place nationwide with over 4000 jobs in the solar industry.  However, Texas is topped by several northern competitors:  New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts all provide more solar jobs than Texas.

Our state leaders could learn quite a bit from the life of Bill Sinkin.   He embodied both a hard-nosed business sense and progressive idealism.  His life and achievements were proof that the two values are not necessarily diametrically-opposed. One looks at the near-term consequences of decisions, while the other considers the long-term possibilities.  We need more of the latter – leaders who have the desire and capability to peer just over the horizon and prepare the rest of us for what’s to come.


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