Mission statement

Who we are: A grass roots volunteer group of Plano citizens
Our Mission: To increase awareness and use of Solar Energy for electricity generation in Plano
This Blog: PlanoSolar.org - for articles, useful links, resources, surveys, how-tos
**** Check out our 1 minute video **** Solar Energy in Texas - Don't you wonder?

Monday, August 17, 2015

US Energy Policy and Home Ownership

An “Open Letter” to our Texas elected representatives 
to the US Senate and House of Representatives

As a homeowner in Texas, I feel that home ownership and long term investments in our homes, helps to facilitate a strong foundation for families in Texas and the United States.

My family recently made a long term investment in our home by purchasing a solar photovoltaic (PV) electric system to capture the local clean energy falling on our home every day. The US Internal Revenue Code Section 25D residential solar investment tax credit (ITC) is achieving its goal to encourage individuals to increase investments in residential renewable energy systems. It helped our family, and many like ours, to make the personal long term commitment to invest in energy freedom. It is a great feeling to be more energy independent!

Using rooftop (or onsite) solar PV technology now available has the great advantage of generating the electricity where it is consumed. This helps all electricity consumers by reducing the strain on the overall electric grid and reducing energy losses that occur when transmitting electricity over long distances. And especially in Texas, solar PV generates the electricity when we are using it the most – when the sun is shining! (It was especially satisfying to know that when the Texas electric grid was hitting peak demand last week my solar PV system was helping to offset some of this peak electricity demand.) As Texas continues to grow, building more of our new homes with solar PV systems to make them net zero (i.e. they produce as much energy as they consume on an annual basis) will further reduce the strain on our electrical grid and help more citizens to become more energy independent!

The Section 25D residential solar ITC also accelerates growth of small businesses across Texas and the rest of the country - businesses that install, contract, or work on residential systems. A recent policy brief titled “Clean Energy Employment Booming, Creates a More Diverse Workforce and Higher Quality Jobs” indicates that Texas had over a 60% growth in solar jobs in 2014. While the rooftop solar market has grown dramatically in part due to third party ownership and leasing, the residential market is beginning to further expand with loans and direct ownership models making the section 25D residential solar ITC extremely important for years to come. For additional information on solar jobs in Texas, see the 2014 Texas Solar Job Census Report.

If the Section 25D solar ITC does expire at the end of 2016, it will stack the deck against homeowners who wish to make this long term investment in their home.  This is because the similar Section 48A solar ITC for commercial owners, while currently set to step down in percentage at the end of 2016, will not go to zero like the residential solar ITC. Thus commercial owners, including third party owners leasing rooftop solar PV systems to homeowners, will continue to receive a solar ITC. Additionally, commercial owners will continue to receive a business depreciation incentive which is not available to residential homeowners.

While considering the tradeoffs for renewable energy incentives/subsidies, I did some research on the long term history of energy incentives/subsidies in the US.  What I found is that all energy sources have benefitted from long term and continuing government incentives. (For example, see reference The Historical Role of Federal Subsidies in Shaping America’s Energy Future .) So while I generally believe that most energy incentives should be phased out over time, I feel most strongly that we should start first by eliminating all incentives and industry specific tax benefits for those energy sources that have been receiving them the longest (in some cases for 90+ years). Once these are ended, then we could consider a gradual phase out of incentives for the newer renewable energy sources. However, if we do identify societal reasons to continue to provide favorable tax incentives for energy sources, then we cannot in good conscience end incentives for new technologies, especially clean renewable technologies that generate electricity directly where it is consumed, while continuing to provide favorable incentives and tax treatment for incumbent energy sources.

As my elected representatives to our US legislature, I am asking you to take the necessary steps to review and extend this solar ITC, in a sensible way, for a sensible time, with an appropriate phase out period. This would be a sound tax policy that provides the certainty necessary for Texas and American companies to plan for the future and to innovate; and enable more homeowners to experience greater energy independence. While historically, Texas’ great energy resources have been oil and gas, new technology innovation is allowing us to add wind and solar energy (including local on-site solar) into the mix.

I appreciate your collective experience and leadership in service to the citizens of Texas, and I look forward to having your support on this important home ownership and energy independence issue. I would welcome the opportunity to speak more about this important topic with you.

Best Regards and Shine On!
Richard Howe
Plano, Texas

This letter is from one of our Plano Solar Advocate (PSA) volunteers and does not specifically represent the views of other or all PSA volunteers. Comments and feedback are encouraged in the comment section below.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

As North Texas Grows, Let's Grow it "Solar Ready"

Building a new home, or know someone who is?  Then make sure the builder designs and builds it "Solar Ready"!

North Texas continues to grow.  According to various estimates, the population could double over the next decades and along with that a million new homes could be constructed.  Providing clean energy will be one the key challenges for the region. However, with this new home construction, comes the great opportunity to leverage our local clean energy resource from the sun!

Studies have determined that not all existing homes are good candidates for rooftop solar installations, maybe only 20-33%. Home orientation, roof layout, and roof obstructions can be reasons for some homes not being a good candidate. However, new homes don't have to have these potential blocking issues. New solar ready building codes have been defined and included in the 2015 International Energy Conservation Code (IECC) for residential dwellings. 

Consider the parallel of rooftop solar with residential home air conditioning. Some 50-60 years ago, new homes being built began to widely adopt the new technology of residential central air conditioning.  The designs and building codes were adapted to accommodate the changes necessary to add this new major home appliance technology. It was a wonderful technology greatly increasing the comfort and livability for Texas citizens. So much so, the population of Texas began to grow dramatically.  Also at the same time, undoubtedly the electricity demand began to grow across the state, and in particular the peak demand began to grow with heavy air conditioning use during our long sunny summer afternoons.

Fast forward to today. Peak demand electricity usage has become a challenge for the Texas electricity grid.  And more people are continuing to move to Texas.  And more new homes are being built. Today, 50+ years after the wide spread adoption of residential central air conditioning, there is a new technology beginning to be widely deployed called rooftop solar photovoltaics (PV). Finally, each new home can be built solar ready or include solar panels that generate local electricity to help power central air conditioning and other home comforts. Electricity that is generated where it is consumed, reducing the strain on the statewide electric grid. 

In March of this year, the Dallas Morning News had an article titled "New North Texas communities woo residents with neighborhood farms, open space”.  In the article were statements like - Trails, open space, community gardens are “IN”, golf courses are “OUT”. I took the opportunity to visit a few of the developments mentioned in the article - Light Farms (developer Republic Property Group) and Windsong Ranch (developer Terra Verde Group).  While many of the new homes on display included great energy efficiency features, there was what I considered a glaring problem. There appeared to be no consideration in the design of the roofs of these homes for future solar installations. There were SO MANY roof surfaces, ridges, dormers, and strange roof angles. It would be very unfortunate if the next 50 years of housing stock being erected today was not taking into consideration the great new potential of rooftop solar to provide onsite local clean energy generation.

Solar-ready provisions include relatively simple items such as including a chase that goes to the roof for solar service lines, and a roof design that provides an area of unobstructed south facing roof surface where solar panels could be installed. When included in the original design requirements and done when the home is constructed, these solar-ready provisions should add little or no cost to the overall price of new homes. See ICC Approves Changes to Energy Code for additional information.

Readers are encouraged to promote adoption of solar ready codes where they live as outlined in the Best Management Practices from the North Central Texas Council of Governments Solar Power Initiatives project. See Adopt a Solar Ready Ordinance for additional details.

And MOST importantly, as consumers and customers for new home builders, let's make sure that we are requiring that our next new home purchase be one that is designed and built "solar ready" - or maybe even include a solar PV installation with the new home!

For additional information, go to our Useful Links page and scroll down to the section labeled "Solar-Ready Homes - Net Zero Energy Homes"

Shine On!
Plano Solar Advocates (LH)

Monday, February 16, 2015

Go Solar at Home!

The next step in expanding the use of rooftop solar in Plano and North Texas!

Plano Solar Advocates is introducing a pilot project titled "GO SOLAR AT HOME" which is modeled after the very successful “Bring Solar Home” campaign from Solar San Antonio.
(To learn more read on, and/or go to the Enrollment Page)

Like our earlier Solarize Plano Projects, this project is being done in collaboration with the City of Plano’s Live Green in Plano initiatives. The project is available to Plano residents, and we welcome residents of surrounding communities to participate as well!

The primary goal of the project is to connect homeowners (and small businesses with rooftops) who are thinking about, or ready to install solar, with local area solar installers. Enrolling in the project is not a commitment to purchase, but a commitment to learn more about LOCAL CLEAN rooftop solar PV energy.

As part of the enrollment process, interested residents are guided through basic rooftop solar education steps. They are encouraged to research their annual energy consumption to enable them to calculate possible solar PV system sizes specific to their situation.  These are simple, but important, steps so that interested individuals are better equipped and positioned to review proposals from solar installation companies if they choose to go forward.

After completing the basic education steps and completing the online enrollment form, your information will be provided to three local solar installation companies. These companies will contact you to discuss your goals and determine if solar is a good option for your residence.

To take the next step - Enroll Here!
For information meeting sessions, see Schedules and Presentations

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Solar Ready Homes in Texas - Getting on the Radar!

Small steps can begin to make a BIG difference!

Back in July of this year, we had a blog posting titled, "Build Solar Ready Homes in Solar Rich Texas".  The objective was to recommend that local jurisdictions (and Texas at the state level) consider adopting residential building codes that require new homes to be designed and built "solar ready". 

Recently, the Texas A&M Energy Systems Lab (ESL) completed their mandated technical review and recommendations of the 2015 IECC and IRC energy codes for the State Energy Conservation Office (SECO).   Their letter of recommendation included a review and summary of the comments that SECO received regarding the 2015 codes.  (See section labeled "Comments in Favor of the Adoption of the 2015 IRC Appendix U: Solar-Ready Residences".) While "solar ready" provisions were not specifically recommended by ESL, it was great to see in this summary report that "solar ready" provisions are finally getting some visibility.  

Small steps can lead to BIGGER steps!  Let's keep promoting residential rooftop solar PV in Plano and all across Solar Rich Texas!

Shine On!
Plano Solar Advocates (LH)

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Support the Texas Solar Energy Society Comments for Power to Choose Website

We are encouraging Texans to support the Texas Solar Energy Society (TXSES) filed comments for suggested enhancements to the Power to Choose website.  This can be accomplished using the "contact us" section of the Power to Choose website and will only take a few minutes.  This blog posting provides information about (1) the Texas Public Utility Commission (PUC) Project, (2) the comments filed by TXSES, and (3) a way for citizens to show support for the filed comments.

1. Texas Public Utility Commission Project # 43787
Project Number 43787 has been recently established to allow interested persons an opportunity to submit comments and suggestions for the Power to Choose website (www.powertochoose.org). Comments will be accepted through February 13, 2015.  To review the project documents and comments filed to date, click this link Project 43787. For those living closer to Austin, there will be a public forum on Dec 19, 2014.  See Notice of Public Forum for details.

2. The Texas Solar Energy Society Filed Comments
Plano Solar Advocates has a working group that is exploring the net metering challenges in our deregulated electricity market. For details and background, see Net Metering Working Group Status.

TXSES has filed comments that Plano Solar Advocates believe are positive step forward.  The three basic recommendations for website improvements in ascending order of complexity are:

A. Provide a search/filter alongside the other existing search/filters so that distributed renewable generation excess buyback type rate plans can be found and easily compared to other rate plans.  This should be a very simple addition as the existing Energy Facts Label content required for every plan as defined by §25.475 - Information Disclosures to Residential and Small Commercial Customers – already includes the question “Does REP purchase excess distributed renewable generation?”.

B. As an additional enhancement to aid the comparison of excess distributed renewable generation buyback plans, it is suggested that the displayed content be enhanced to include at what rate the excess generation is purchased.  Some example responses could be:
  • “at same rate as the customer’s retail rate”,
  • a specific rate, .e.g.  “X cents/kWh, or
  • some other rate with supporting information.
C. Technology is now available to allow Texas electricity consumers the option to locally generate some or most of their electricity with rooftop solar PV. It is recommended that the PUC add an additional feature set to the “Power to Choose” website tool that will help consumers learn about local distributed renewable electricity produced by solar PV systems and help them find reputable solar installation companies in their respective zip codes – just as they help them find Retail Electric Providers!  Now that would be the “REAL” Power to Choose!

3. Show Support by Twitter or using the Power to Choose "Contact Us" form
While the process to file comments to a Texas PUC project can seem somewhat burdensome. If you have a twitter account, we recommend that you reply to this @PUCTX tweet with this message:

Alternatively, Plano Solar Advocates is suggesting the use of the "contact us" section of the Power to Choose website using these steps:

A. Navigate to the Power to Choose website at www.powertochoose.org, look to the bottom of the page and select the "contact us" item.

B. complete the form as follows:
  • Reason for Contact - select "Information"
  • Email Address - provide your email address
  • Subject - enter "Project 43787"
  • Message - suggested content - "I agree and support the filed comments by the Texas Solar Energy Society for this project. I am submitting this message of support for an existing filed comment electronically to save all of us time, money, and paper."
  • Complete the CAPTCHA and then submit.
The more people that provide input in support of these updates, the better the chances to improve this website tool.  According to ERCOT (The Electric Reliability Council of Texas) data, there are over 4,600 PV installations in the deregulated market in Texas as as of Sept 2014.  Let's see if we can get at least 4,600 inputs in support of these website improvements.

Thanks and Shine On!
Plano Solar Advocate (LH)

Friday, October 10, 2014

Overcoming Potential Regulatory (local) Barriers for Residential Solar Installations

So, YOU want to put Solar PV on YOUR property?  There may be some potential barriers related to local regulations of which you should be aware. And hopefully with this blog posting, we can provide some ways to help you overcome them if they get in your way.

Deployment of residential solar panels is still a relatively new phenomenon.  Therefore it is normal for a few people to question their aesthetics. (As solar advocates, this may seem hard to believe... but does sometimes happen...) However, aesthetics is a very subjective topic and as solar panels become a more normal occurrence, the aesthetic “concerns” will fade.  Remember when many neighborhoods required wood shingle roofs because it was thought that composition shingles were not aesthetically pleasing?  That didn’t last very long.

By the end of 2013, there were 470,000 total solar PV installations across the US. 155,000 of those installations were completed in 2013. Thus, the GROWTH has been recent and LARGE! The numbers in Texas are still relatively small, but the numbers are not insignificant. By the end of 2014, Texas will be nearing 10,000 total installations.

So let's identify and discuss four potential barriers and how to overcome them.  They include: 
  1. HOA requirements and Texas HOA legislation (important to know and understand even if you don't live in a neighborhood with an HOA)
  2. The HOA "street facing" restriction and how to overcome it
  3. Recent city ordinance activity across North Texas and how to make sure it doesn't become a barrier
  4. The one big HOA legislation loophole and how it may effect homeowners - in the short term and longer term
1. HOA requirements and Texas HOA legislation

  • Texas HB-362, passed in the 82nd Legislative session (2011), limits HOAs and POAs from restricting solar devices outright. To comply with this law, homeowners that live in neighborhoods with HOAs must still follow the normal procedures for seeking improvements, including a written request or application to an appointed Architecture Review Committee or similar council.
  • For additional information, please see our "Useful Links" page and scroll down to section titled "Policy & References related to HOAs (Home Owners Associations)".
  • Even if you don't live in a neighborhood with an HOA, it is important to understand the basics of the legislation because similar restrictions might appear in local city/county ordinances.  (Learn more in item 3 below.)
  • Also, there is still one particularly problematic loophole in the existing Texas HOA legislation that is a BIG problem in new, and not so new, neighborhood developments.  See item 4 to learn more!

2. Texas HOA legislation "street facing" clause and how to overcome it

  • Some people might not install solar panels because their HOA does not "seem to" allow street facing panels. Since south facing panels provide the maximum annual production, it is important to install panels on the south facing roof even if it is street facing.  To learn how to overcome this "apparent" but "not a show stopper" restriction, see our blog posting - "Texas HOAs generally CANNOT block south street facing solar installations"

3. Recent city ordinance activity across North Texas and how to make sure it doesn't become a barrier

  • Recently, the North Texas Renewable Energy Group has found that some city jurisdictions across North Texas have been researching and drafting solar ordinances for their communities. While this can be an opportunity to increase awareness and promote the use of solar energy, it can also sometimes be misapplied to create overly restrictive ordinances that actually derail the growth of solar. In these overly restrictive examples, it is usually the result of a misguided attempt to protect community "aesthetics" as was previously mentioned.
  • You are encouraged to get involved with your local city or community and make sure that they have solar-friendly ordinances and processes. Below is a suggested simplified list of uniformly enforceable solar energy device related ordinances with a strong emphasis on safety.
    • Solar energy devices are allowed. Along with energy efficiency investments, residents are encouraged to use available renewable clean energy technology to reduce their electric load on the electric utility grid. 
    • Installed solar energy devices must meet all applicable safety requirements including electrical, fire, and building codes.  Simplified city permits are required, and the permitting process is in place to insure that applicable safety codes are met. 
    • Solar energy devices that are to be interconnected to the electric grid must meet applicable interconnection requirements and approvals of the local electric utility.
  • Ordinance restrictions for solar energy devices beyond those related to safety will be difficult to uniformly apply and enforce.  For example, most jurisdictions have found that trying to enforce “no street visibility” for solar panels for aesthetic reasons can be easily challenged.  For example, how can a jurisdiction allow some homeowners the consumer choice to install solar panels because their ideal roof surface for solar panels is not visible from the street, while prohibiting another homeowner from the consumer choice of installing solar panels because their idea roof surface is “visible from the street”.  Similarly, if aesthetics is such a significant factor, then why would it be acceptable for someone to have to tolerate solar panels if they lived behind someone with solar panels on the rear of their house, but not be acceptable if they lived across the street from someone that had solar panels installed on the front of their house.
  • If your city or jurisdiction does have some type of "street facing" restrictions, you can submit a request to your city's Board of Adjustment or Variance.  Using the same information that you would use to show adverse solar production for an HOA, in most cases the board will grant you a waiver to install.  (If they don't, Plano Solar Advocates would be interested to help.)  It would also be a good idea to request the city revise their ordinance to remove street facing restrictions so that citizens and the city or not required to go through the extra time and expense of going through a variance process.

4. The one big HOA legislation loophole and how it may effect homeowners - in the short term and longer term

  • As was mentioned in item 1 above, there is one particularly problematic loophole in the existing Texas HOA legislation that is a BIG problem in new neighborhood developments. The loophole indicates that during the development period, the developer may prohibit or restrict a property owner from installing a solar energy device.
  • The good news is that some residential developers allow solar installations during the "development period". The BAD news is that many DO NOT.  And since this "development period" can last a few years, and even extend for decades if the developer is adding new additions, this can be a very big barrier to the expansion of residential solar and to net zero energy homes.
  • We need everyone's help to get involved and help change/eliminate this loophole. To learn more see "Energy Star Homebuilders Block Installation of Solar PV in Plano Neighborhood".
  • To learn about a way to spread the word on this barrier, see "Neighborhood Opportunities"
  • GOOD NEWS UPDATE 5/23/2015: Due to 2015 state legislation SB-1626, this loophole by has been reduced to only apply for developments with fewer than 51 planned residential units (effective 9/1/2015).

If you know of any other local regulatory barriers, please let us know and provide comments and feedback to this posting.

Thanks and Shine On!
Plano Solar Advocate (LH)

Monday, August 25, 2014

Energy Literacy - in Plano and North Texas

As students in Plano and many districts across North Texas head back to school today, let's take some time for all of us to increase our literacy about our energy consumption and its impacts.

When first learning about rooftop solar, it is important to do some homework to understand how much electricity your home or business uses on an annual basis in total kilowatt-hours (kWh). While most of us know about how much we spend in dollars on our monthly electric bill, we need to better understand our total average annual kWh usage before taking the next steps for investing in rooftop solar (or similar energy efficiency investment).  Improving our understanding of how much electricity energy we consume is an important first step to improving our overall "energy literacy".  

And improving our "energy literacy" is significant for two broad reasons.  First - it appears that the North Texas area annually uses more electricity than any other region of the state. (More about this in the next paragraph.) And second, most of the electricity we consume in North Central Texas is generated by central power plants outside the area we live.  Therefore, the impacts of this electricity generation delivered to our region - good or bad - we don't seem to know, or care about. Over time, we can dramatically shift this second point, by taking advantage of clean local energy available to us almost every day - from the sun! With technology available today, we can grow and enrich our community by combining the use of this local solar resource with expanding our energy literacy and energy efficiency.

The Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) manages the flow of electric power to 24 million Texas customers - representing 85 percent of the state's electric load.  Their website (www.ercot.com) provides a wealth of information about electricity use across Texas.  Much of this data is grouped in eight zones across the state. Plano and the DFW area are in the North Central Texas zone. Annually this zone is the highest consumer of electricity of all the eight ERCOT zones, consuming one-third of all the electricity of Texas. By doing a bit more math on some additional data from ERCOT, it can be calculated that the average residential customer in the North Central zone used 16,220 kWh in 2013.  This is about 10% higher than the average across all the zones and almost 20% higher than the zone with the least annual usage. 

Plano consumes over 4 Billion (with a capital B) kilowatt-hours of electricity every year. With today’s available solar photovoltaic technology, about 40% of this demand could be met with about three percent of the city’s 72 square miles of surface area.  Think residential and business rooftops!  Local CLEAN energy, that uses no water for generation, and is generated where it is consumed so no energy waste in transmission. 

As Texas, and especially the North Texas area continues to grow, it seems that improving our "energy literacy" and taking advantage of clean local solar energy might help us in the long term save money, reduce our water consumption, improve our air quality, and improve our overall quality of life.  

To help us in the journey of improving our "energy literacy", we wanted to let our blog readers know about a very informative webinar held by the US Department of Energy on August 5 titled "National Energy Literacy Virtual Town Hall".  Links to the webcast information, presentation, and additional information are available at this link - www.energy.gov/eere/education/downloads/webcast-national-energy-literacy-virtual-town-hall

Points of interest from the webinar:
Please take a look at some of this information and let us know what we can do to help improve Energy Literacy in Plano!

Shine On!
Plano Solar Advocates (LH)