Tuesday, April 28, 2009

AUSTIN — Solar energy could have a brighter future under a Texas Senate-passed bill that would invest half a billion dollars into the industry over th

The investment would come through rebates for solar installations, from homeowners’ rooftop panels to large-scale projects envisioned for West Texas. The bill, passed by a vote of 26 to 4, now goes to the House.
Money for the rebates would be raised through monthly fees on electric bills. Homeowners would pay 20 cents, small businesses $2 and industries $20.
“We took baby steps to start with to jump start the industry,” said Sen. Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay, who authored the bill.

The Public Utility Commission would determine the amount of the rebates, with $30 million a year going to homeowners and up to $70 million for utility-scale solar projects. Fraser said if there are not enough qualifying large projects, more money would be available for individuals. The bill directs municipal utilities like the ones in San Antonio and Austin to establish similar solar incentives. The fund expires after five years although the PUC could extend it for another five years. The bill would also require retail electric companies to buy a customer’s surplus electricity at a fair market price or credit the customer’s bill.“If people want to generate electricity, more power to them,” Fraser said.

Solar could help during hot summer afternoons — times of peak electric demand — when the wind often dies down, Fraser said. It would authorize the State Energy Conservation Office to establish a revolving loan program to help school districts install solar systems. It also would require homebuilders to offer solar as an option in new subdivisions with at least 50 homes. Environment Texas Director Luke Metzger said despite the progress of solar technology, the cost of a home or commercial solar system in Texas is still too high to make long-term financial sense. But the U.S. Department of Energy said that improvements in the next five years could put solar on parity with traditional electricity sources. “We have the sun, we have the technological know-how. Now, we’ll have a market that can make Texas a world leader in solar power,” Metzger said. Another feature of the bill would stop homeowners’ associations from banning rooftop solar panels, as some have done.

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