Sun Rises (Finally) for AE

The utility's $5 / watt solar rebate program is – this time for sure – ready to go

As promised, Austin Energy will apparently be ready to go June 1 on its long-anticipated solar rebate program, offering a $5/watt incentive "to encourage its customers to purchase and install grid-connected solar energy systems." The City Council today (Thursday) is set to finally adopt a resolution creating and authorizing a rebate program, and in doing so express its "desire that Austin become a participant in the solar energy market and that it remain a leader in the development and use of clean, renewable energy."

June 1 was the anticipated start date back when Austin Energy secured City Council approval, in December, to fund the rebate program – $933,000 for the remainder of fiscal 2004, which ends Sept. 30. AE and solar industry firms had claimed the program could be ready to go as early as April 1, but, well, it wasn't. The program that goes before the City Council today would offer $5 per watt rebates for solar photovoltaic systems, up to a maximum of 80% of the installed cost, or $15,000 for residential customers or $100,000 for commercial customers, whichever is less. Also in the proposal is a higher rebate – $6.25 per watt – for "systems that are manufactured or assembled (excluding installation) locally within the city of Austin's electric service area."

This bonus was first pitched as part of AE's strategic plan back in November "pending legal review." This week's council resolution makes specific reference to economic development efforts authorized by Chapter 380 of the Texas Local Government Code – the legislation used to back up the city's Domain incentive package and like efforts – in what is presumably a strategy to clear whatever legal hurdles exist. Even at a higher rebate rate, though, solar advocates – though happy about AE's commitment to a rebate – note that $1 million a year, with no guarantees of future funding, will not go very far to either create solar megawatts for AE or jobs in the Austin clean-energy industry cluster.

Advocates, organized as the Solar Austin Campaign, are expected Thursday to reiterate their call for future funding for the program of between $15 million and $18 million starting in fiscal 2005. That's enough money, at the $5/watt rate, to move AE methodically, year by year, toward its strategic plan goal of creating 15 megawatts of solar capacity by fiscal 2007. The alternative would be for AE to backload its solar goal, adding the bulk of that 15 megawatts down the line when solar energy may be cheaper to generate – but such an approach would, advocates say, not be sufficient to grab the attention of large-scale PV manufacturers who are considering right now whether it's worth their while to put roots, and jobs, down in Austin. "This is the only time we'll have to focus specifically on solar before the budget hearings start," says Amanda Bybee of Public Citizen, the coordinator of the Solar Austin Campaign. "But we're happy things are moving."

In addition to the rebate, AE is moving forward with plans for a "value of solar energy" study that will identify a price tag – accounting for community values and benefits, not just the cost of the power – that will be used in future tweaking of the rebate and for "net metering" (the price AE pays when a grid-connected solar customer generates more power than it consumes, often described as "when your meter runs backwards"). Also on the City Council agenda today is an amendment to the AE rate schedule (which has been haggled over between AE and clean-power advocates for months) to create a "distributed generation from renewable sources" rider allowing solar and other clean-energy customers – whether or not they're getting rebates – to potentially earn credit via net metering for the power they generate.

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