Austin Energy to Pay Customers to Generate Their Own Power

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City Council approves rebate of $5,000 per kilowatt for solar array installations for their residential and commercial customers.

The Austin City Council yesterday approved a rebate of up to $15,000 to residential and commercial power customers who install photo voltaic solar panels in their homes and businesses.

The rebate will pay $5,000 per kilowatt of generation capability, which is expected to cover 70%-80% of the cost of solar installations.

"This is one of the most aggressive of solar incentive programs that we have in the country," Fred Yebra with Austin Energy said.

According to their website, Austin Energy has set a goal to install 100 megawatts (MW) of solar power capacity by 2020. This would represent sufficient energy to power 7,500 homes year round.

Austin Energy hopes to hook up solar power to more than 100 Austin homes and a dozen or so businesses in the next year.

"Rather than ultimately building a new power plant, which costs hundreds of millions of dollars, we're going to build a new power plant a little bit at a time, one rooftop at a time," Gavin Moore with Meridian Energy Systems said.

"You're effectively buying electricity 30 years in advance," Fred Yebra with Austin Energy said, "We are reducing the long-term costs of electric facilities. We're also improving our environment through reduced air pollution and we're contributing to the local economy."

The typical solar system can provide about half of a home's usual power needs.

When the sun energy is greater than the energy needed by the home, the meter runs backward. The 'net metering' tabulates the overall energy consumption at the end of the month and subtracts the energy generated by the solar system from that used from grid.

"In those cases where the net usage for a month is negative, the customer's account will be credited at a rate of 1/3 retail cost of electricity," said Mark Kapner, Senior Strategy Planner with Austin Energy. Utilities billing is combined in Austin, so credits on electricity can be applied to the costs of sewer, water, garbage collection and drainage.

In the application process, Austin Energy will be asking for model and make of proposed solar array, and they will be doing on-site inspections to check for shading and optimal angle considerations, according to Kapner.

One of the first applicants for the rebates is an Austin investment advisor, but for him it's about more than money," rebate applicant Larry Najver said, "Yes, this is a good investment. This is a guaranteed rate of return here. My son was in Iraq. I think if we don't use as much oil, you know, anything we can do to reduce that need for foreign oil."

Power outages effect fewer people when more people have independent generation capabilities. Backfeed into de-energized lines is not a problem because the inverters built into the solar systems have built-in detection to keep from feeding power into a line that is down. "We are confident that the equipment standards and test methods established by the Underwriter Laboratories and IEEE are very well thought out, and that our linemen will not be in danger," said Kapner.

The regulations regarding backfeed are held to strict distributed generation standards.

The stance of Austin Electric wasn't always as friendly toward their Solar energy customers. "At first, my colleagues were going to charge a fee to solar customers to recover fixed costs involved in the infrastructure they are using to send power back to the grid," said Kapner.

The solar advocates made a strong public outcry at Austin Electric's proposal for a fee. Because the board of directors is the city council, the public sentiment prevailed. New York Power charges such a fee now, and has lost customers because they opt to go completely independent rather than pay such a fee. "We believe it is in our best interest to do it the way we are doing it now," said Kapner.


The above article was written by Sterling D. Allan of Pure Energy Systems News

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Adapted from KXAN TV, Austin 36, May 25, 2004

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Sterling Allan