Since they’re costly to install, well-heeled utility customers have largely been the ones to put residential solar panels. This has stalled the growth of solar power and tended to concentrate its installation in certain areas.
CPS Energy in San Antonio aims to change this model, making solar power available to middle- and low-income residents of the Texas city. City residents can rent their rooftops for the installation of solar panels. Local solar contractors perform the installation work, and CPS buys the electricity. The solar companies, not homeowners, would receive tax credits or other incentives.
Participants will receive about $30 per month for a 20-year lease in the form of a credit on their utility bill. In this way, residents quickly see the benefit of solar installation without the large upfront costs of traditional solar panel installation because CPS and the installers bear those costs. When it launched the program earlier this month, the company hoped to sign up 2,000 customers. That many had applied in the program’s first three days, according to Slate. That’s also the same number of customers who had installed rooftop solar during the previous seven years when the utility used the net metering model, which allows customers to sell excess electricity to the grid.
This allows CPS, which is municipally owned, to increase its solar collection footprint without building large, often hard-to-site solar farms — although it is working with solar companies to build those, too. Unlike Maine utilities, CPS can generate its power, not just buy it from other companies.
The utility has 100 megawatts of installed solar capacity, 20 megawatts of which is in the form of rooftop solar. Renewable energy accounts for 16 percent of the company’s electricity generation. It also sells natural gas. In its sustainability report for 2011-13, CPS notes that is carbon dioxide emission rate has dropped even as it has generated more electricity.
CPS residential customers will pay an average of 11.1 cents per kilowatt hour for their electricity this month. This rate includes adjustments for the purchase (or sale) of solar power, along with wind power and landfill gas. It also includes a surcharge to support energy efficiency work. Rates are not expected to increase in San Antonio until 2018, in part because the utility produces more electricity than its customers use.
Residential customers of Central Maine Power Co. have been paying 12.87 cents per kilowatt hour since March 2015; Emera customers in the former Bangor Hydro territory are paying $16.74, according to the Office of the Public Advocate. These rates include a surcharge to support the Efficiency Maine Trust.
Because every utility customer pays into Efficiency Maine, it is important to find ways for all customers to benefit from work that improves energy efficiency and lowers costs, says Tim Schneider, Maine’s public advocate. There are significant upfront costs to switching to a more efficient furnace or fuel source, or installing solar panels — even with rebates or tax credits. So, the customers with the most financial resources tend to do this work. The CPS model is attractive because it spreads the benefits to a broader financial demographic.
But with a very different utility landscape in Maine, the San Antonio model can’t simply be imported. Instead, what has happened there can inform new approaches to encouraging greater adoption of renewable power sources here.