February 2, 2009
Positioning Texas to jockey with other states for green energy jobs, lawmakers are unveiling plans to spur the research and manufacture of solar power in the state.
The series of proposals is as broad as giving tax breaks to manufacturers of made-in-Texas solar panels and as narrow as barring homeowner associations that try to forbid solar panels in subdivisions.
The measures come as Texas decides whether to expand its clean energy business. While Texas leads the nation in wind power capacity, it has fewer than a dozen installed megawatts for solar in its 72,000-megawatt system. Only one company in the state — Austin’s HelioVolt — manufactures solar power products.
Some businesspeople are pushing for the measures as a way to convert Central Texas’ increasingly fragile chipmaking industry into a renewable energy and clean tech base.
“Texas is renowned for being a good place to do business, but it’s not on a lot of people’s radar to enter the solar business here,” said Steve Taylor, a spokesman for Applied Materials and for the Solar Alliance, a coalition of solar businesses that lobbies nationally for measures to grow its industry. The state “just hasn’t been addressing this potential and this market.”
Some of the proposals are being orchestrated by state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, who says he will lay out an incentive package this week for utilities to invest in solar power from equipment manufactured in the state.
He says he will try to increase the authority of the State Energy Conservation Office, Texas’ hub for clean energy projects. A proposal he plans to file today calls for the establishment of a Center for Sustainable Business to help the state and businesses reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.
And Watson has filed a measure that will direct money from the state’s Emerging Technology Fund into clean energy research and development. (There’s currently $59 million in the fund, which has also been used to support emerging technology in cancer treatment, among other things. Since fiscal year 2006, $22 million has been spent on energy research and business.)
Other lawmakers are also trying, through resolutions and policies, to expand the state’s solar portfolio.
A measure proposed by state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, sets a goal of 3,000 megawatts from solar sources by 2019, or enough to roughly match the City of Austin’s energy appetite. That measure doesn’t say exactly how the state will reach the goal.
“Some people say let’s let the market decide if we need more solar or more wind,” she said, anticipating arguments against a top-down investment in solar. “It shows we’re serious about increasing our solar footprints, and companies are more likely to come to Texas for manufacturing jobs.”
Van de Putte says the measures will put Texas in good position to pull down federal dollars from an impending stimulus package, which Obama administration officials have said will reward green infrastructure projects.
She has also proposed sales tax exemptions related to the sale, use, installation, construction, assembly and maintenance, or other consumption, of solar panels.
Lawmakers have even proposed barring homeowner associations from forbidding solar panels in their subdivisions.
The idea behind the proposals floating through the Legislature is “to kick-start the solar panel industry here in Texas and bring costs down,” said state Sen. Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay.
The U.S. lacks an epicenter of solar panel production, with much of the work being done in Europe and in small operations scattered across the country, Taylor said.
“There’s not the kind of thing (in the U.S.) that can ramp up to deal with the large scale of activity that’s coming, especially with the federal money,” he said.
Fraser, chairman of the Committee on Business and Commerce, has filed a measure that aims to build a statewide fund to give subsidies to homeowners who put solar panels on their roofs.
The $50 million for the fund would be raised by a surcharge of 10 cents per month on homeowners’ electric bills, a $1-per-month charge on commercial business electric bills and a $10-per-month charge for industrial users.
In some respects, the measures at the Capitol have more to do with the rest of Texas than with Austin, where the city-owned utility is a national leader in alternative power and offers hefty rebates for putting solar panels atop homes.
Austin Energy also wants to set aside 300 acres it owns outside Webberville in eastern Travis County for the nation’s largest solar array. The facility would open in late 2010 and produce enough energy annually to power up to 5,000 homes.
Austin Energy would pay $10 million a year for 25 years for the power generated by the array. Buying the solar power would raise the monthly electric bill for the average Austin homeowner by an estimated 60 cents, the utility said.
Because solar power costs more than power from conventional sources, similar legislative efforts have been thwarted previously in part because of opposition from large consumers of energy, such as manufacturers.
But in his state of the state address last month, Gov. Rick Perry suggested he is open to investment in alternative energy.
Watson said he has not discussed his proposals with Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, who presides over the Senate.
The success of state incentives and mandates in spurring the wind power industry in recent years could lead the way for similar measures for solar power this session.
“Those individuals who feel any increased cost of electricity in today’s market is unacceptable are shortsighted,” said Russel Smith, the executive director of the Texas Renewable Energy Industry Association, a lobbying group. “Because you look at the longer haul, we’ll be better off in time because we’re hedging against the increased cost of standard energy sources out there.”