San Antonio looking to dip into solar pool

June 30, 2008 9:52:12 AM PDT
With record-high energy prices and a global energy crunch making life tough on those who depend on fossil fuel, San Antonio is starting to turn toward solar power. CPS Energy has set a goal of producing 100 megawatts of solar energy by 2020, and the company plans to begin seeking suitors for a large solar plant in the next few months.

Meanwhile, Mayor Phil Hardberger wants to make the Alamo City tops in the state in solar production.

"I think we ought to stop just talking about and actually do this thing," Hardberger said in Sunday's editions of the San Antonio Express-News. "It's time to start building a solar plant."

Pearl Brewery has announced it will install solar panels capable of producing 200 kilowatts of power. The project will join other large local solar projects, including the hot water system on the Bexar County Jail annex and the photovoltaic array at CPS Energy's customer service center on San Pedro Avenue.

Still, San Antonio has much to do to boost its solar production.

Even though CPS Energy started a solar rebate program a year ago to promote rooftop arrays, only nine homes and businesses have put in solar panels. In contrast, Austin, which started a rebate program in 2004, has solar power on nearly 600 rooftops.

When the Pearl project goes on line later this summer, total power production by solar in San Antonio will be less than half a megawatt -- less than a tenth of a percent of what it takes to power the city on a hot summer afternoon.

Though the United States was once considered the world leader in solar power, it has been outpaced by Germany and Japan over the past decade.

Texas has the potential to produce more energy from solar than any other state because of its size and favorable climate. But the state comptroller's 2008 Energy Report shows that the state's total solar energy output is only 1.7 megawatts. California leads the nation with 198 megawatts. New Jersey is a distant second with 35.5. The numbers drops dramatically after that with third-place Colorado producing only 4 megawatts of solar power.

Cost is an obstacle.

Steve Hixon, a retired businessman, has used CPS Energy's rebate program twice to install just over 9 kilowatts of solar panels on the roof of his 6,000-square-foot house. The project has cost him at least $40,000 out of pocket. He is not sure how much money he is saving, but he figures the payback will come "probably sometime after I die."

Hardberger foresees most of the city's solar power coming from a massive solar farm.

The Energy Department named San Antonio a Solar America City this year, a designation that includes a $200,000 grant and technical assistance from federal labs. City officials are seeking another $500,000 grant from the federal government for solar. The money's uses would include putting demonstration projects on at the Convention Center and at the airport.

"It's an incredible era for green building and the movement towards environmentally friendly development," said City Councilwoman Diane Cibrian, a solar energy proponent. "We are not playing catch-up. We are forward-thinking in the way we are tackling these initiatives."

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