It’s an economic decision to go solar. And that federal tax credit that gives you 30% of a tax credit off the cost of your solar installation, that’s money that stays in Texas. That is money that stays in Texas and there were other people that were in the room when he said that and their necks snapped back and they were like “Oh, yeah.” It’s a decision. By 2014 there were 7,000 people involved in the solar industry in Texas and that’s a lot of people. ~ Lucy Stolzenburg
Lucy Stolzenburg, executive director of the Texas Solar Energy Society
I had a great conversation with Lucy Stolzenburg. She has been involved with the Texas Solar Energy Society since 2007 and has served as executive director since 2012. Her position allows her to work with solar energy proponents across the state of Texas. And, she’s not afraid of a little personal sacrifice in the name of energy efficiency.
LS: My name is Lucy Stolzenburg and I’m the executive director of the Texas Solar Energy society.
DB: Is that several different chapters across the state or?
LS: I do have chapters. The Texas Solar Energy Society is a chapter of the American Solar Energy Society, a state chapter and I in turn have four chapters around the state. We have a chapter in Houston. We have one in San Antonio, one in Austin and then one in north Texas, the North Texas Renewable Energy Group.
DB: Now are there actually any active efforts for Texas to become its own country? Will we see the Texas Solar Energy Society any time soon?
LS: Well I don’t think the Texas Solar Energy Society will go off on its own and secede from ASES. I really appreciate being a part of ASES. It is a very nationalistic place and it stands up to be different from everybody else and my understanding is that our governor is out there again trying to steal from other states. I honestly don’t know how the last governor and this one can go to governor’s conferences and not walk in without a bag on their head.
DB: So what is he trying to steal from other states?
LS: Industry, industry of all sorts. Industry, corporations, workers. You know, he wants to appeal to high tech.
DB: They’re not trying to take actual territory though right?
LS: No they’re not surprisingly enough, they’re not trying to take territory but sometimes I think that’s on the back burner.
DB: So tell me a little bit about the chapters in Texas and how do you spread the word about solar?
LS: The chapters are volunteer. I have a paid position. But the chapters are volunteer. The north Texas chapter is probably my most active chapter as far as the diversity of what they do. They meet monthly, they are at every event in earth month to support solar. They have solar trailers. They’re involved with the high school solar car challenge that brings high school students from across the country with their solar cars. They do the largest solar tour in the state. Last year they have 50 solar locations on the tour. Solar Austin is more involved with policy. They meet monthly, they keep their eye on Austin Energy and keep them honest about solar and try and increase the goals for renewable energy. Solar San Antonio has just merged back with Build San Antonio Green on that idea that you want your residence and your business, the built environment to be as energy efficient as possible before you add solar. Houston is involved in many different things which I can never quite keep track of. But they’re really active and they have made some very interesting points lately. Houston is such an international community that they have the ability to communicate overseas with the family members of these people that are in Houston about solar. So it’s a really interesting approach. They certainly do other things. They are in an oil town. Houston is a tough place to be involved in solar energy. But I have always loved that approach that this is an international town, we’re going to look across the ocean.
DB: That’s smart. What are the incentives currently?
LS: There’s no state rebate but if you have a home that has solar on it there are no property taxes on that solar installation. There is no income tax in Texas so the revenue really does come from the property taxes. So solar shows up on the value of your home but you’re not taxed on it. It is not a net metering state unfortunately. But it is a state that has passed laws to open up solar access in homeowners associations. It used to be that the homeowners associations could stop solar almost dead in its tracks. You could put it on the back of your house of course with the roof facing south, but if the front of your house was the most productive place for the panels the homeowners association would stop that. And gradually in the last three sessions that has been taken away and now new developments, developers of subdivisions over 50 lots cannot say no to solar at all. We’ve made some strides. And there is a tremendous amount of installation in spite of there being no state incentives. There are incentives with some of the municipal utilities. There are incentives with a few of the co-ops and then in the deregulated market there are quite a few incentives, especially in Oncor which is in this area of north Texas where that north Texas group is.
DB: Okay, What are the electricity rates like throughout the state? Are they just all over the place?
LS: They’re low. I would say it would be really hard to find anything over 12 cents a kilowatt hour. I mean, I am in the largest electric co-op in the country and I pay probably about 10.4 cents a kilowatt hour and it can go down less than that in the deregulated area, although the research has shown that since deregulation in some of those areas, since 2001 actually its cost people more over the long term. And it’s a complicated story because you may get involved in a contract with one retail electric provider and find out that that contract if you didn’t get in touch with them after six months the price went up. You have to read the fine print.
I interviewed Lucy at the ASES conference at Penn State. It was really hard to find a quiet spot in the conference center and sometimes it seemed like everybody that worked there was instructed to find us and roll by with a bus cart full of glasses. We moved a couple of times and then we just gave up.
DB: See. I tell you there is no reason for a guy to come through with a cart full of glasses. We are totally out at the end of the conference center.
LS: You have a big bullseye on your back.
DB: Let’s see what was the next thing I was going to ask you? How is most of the electricity generated in Texas?
LS: I do believe most of it is coal and then we have natural gas. Renewables in Texas are I would say about 11% and that is because wind provided 10.6% of the electricity in 2014. So and solar and biomass and hydro comes in on the back of that.
DB: Are there any wind incentives?
LS: Statewide wind incentives? Yes, we do have a renewable portfolio standard in place for wind.
DB: For wind but not for solar?
LS: It started out as all renewable energy but it was such a nice deal for wind because there were all those farmers in west Texas who had been losing on cotton and cattle for years and suddenly you know this was such a great opportunity for them. So the renewable portfolio standard was introduced in the late 90s and just kicked in in 2000 and the goals were hit immediately and there was an effort in the legislature this last session to take away the renewable portfolio standard and it died. Thanks God. And there have been many efforts to do a non-wind carve out. And the public utilities commission, I won’t name names, has stopped it every time. I mean we would love a solar, we would call it a solar carve out. That’s the way we talk about it in the back room. It’s a solar carve out and it just doesn’t happen because the public utility commission just totally ignored a law that was passed in the legislature for a 500 megawatt non-wind carve out and the PUC said we’re not gonna do it.
DB: So when the renewable portfolio standard was rolled out there was just so much wind potential that the wind industry totally met the whole amount.
LS: Yeah, they just stepped in. And it’s kept the rates, research shows it’s kept the rates down. Texas has cheap electricity, that is one of the disadvantages for solar. Electricity is so inexpensive and the average for the state if you don’t have an actual up front rebate, is a twelve year payback. Now in cities like Austin you can do a payback in seven or eight years, maybe nine years. There’s a dollar a watt incentive now.
DB: That’s still better than just buying power from the utility for the next twelve years. That’s never going to pay for itself.
LS: And I am of an age where I look back and go, 12 years ago? Oh my God that was just yesterday. And I’m in that age group that’s not installing solar, but people that are 45 to 60, they’re installing solar and they get it but you know it really should be the younger people because 12 years goes like that. And then you’ve got hardware that’s going to last forever. And you’ve got fuel that’s never going to go away.
LS: My board chairman, Scott Arey Has a solar installation company in central Texas in the Fort Hood area and he hires veterans. He is a veteran and he is a retired Colonel and he hires veterans and he’s got a very healthy installation business in the area and he does 8, 9, 10, 18 kilowatt installations and he has gone down when the legislature was in session this spring and testified several times. And he said one of the best things to get people’s attention is that it’s an economic decision to go solar. And that federal tax credit that gives you 30% of a tax credit off the cost of your solar installation, that’s money that stays in Texas. That is money that stays in Texas and there were other people that were in the room when he said that and their necks snapped back and they were like “Oh, yeah.” It’s a decision. By 2014 there were 7,000 people involved in the solar industry in Texas and that’s a lot of people.
DB: Let’s say the next phase is where we start to be able to power our cars with solar and then we’re not spending money to unstable parts of the world to buy oil. That’s very exciting to me..
LS: In Texas I will say the electric cars are going to have to have a greater range. It’s big area and in Austin there are a lot of electric cars. Yeah, there are a lot of Teslas. It’s amazing. I probably see one every time I drive to town. And there are lots of Leafs and Volts in town, probably more Leafs. But that solar carport thing is getting kind of popular in Austin. We have a saying at TXSES (Texas Solar Energy Society) that solar is contagious, you know it shows up in a neighborhood and the neighbors find out about it and it just starts to go. That’s why there’s been so much installation where I live, outside of town in the electric co-op, where there are no rebates but all those people in Pedernales Electric know people in Austin and they want that. They want that solar.
DB: How far from Austin do you live?
LS: I’m probably 20 miles from downtown Austin. I live in Dripping Springs. It’s not really Dripping Springs, I live in the Dripping Springs school district. I live in the country. And that co-op’s the largest in the country and when I first did a solar tour with them four years ago there were less than 100 installations in Pedernales Electric territory. Now there are over 700 and there’s no rebate.
DB: So Lucy have you done any solar energy or energy efficiency improvements to your house?
LS: What I’ve done has all been for energy efficiency…
You can hear the rest of the interview by listening to the episode.
Thanks to Lucy for taking the time to talk to me. You can find out more about the Texas Solar Energy Society by going to http://txses.org/.
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