Rooftop solar blooms among San Antonio’s design-build community

By on September 17, 2012

Installing 21 kilowatts of solar photovoltaic panels on the roof of its Cevallos Street office was a natural extension of what OCO Architects already does.

“Sustainability is part of our culture,” said Lowell Tacker, one of three principal architects with the firm.

But the decision wasn’t just a feel-good one. With a rebate from CPS Energy and a 30 percent federal tax credit, “it makes the payback realistic,” Tacker said.

OCO is part of a mini-explosion of local architecture firms that have recently added solar to their rooftops. Others include OCO’s neighbor, Alamo Architects, which installed a massive, 48-KW system on its “perfectly oriented” south-facing roof; Lake/Flato, which was able to add a 10-KW system on a sunny slice of its downtown roof, and Overland Partners, which just received a rebate from CPS Energy for a 32-KW system.

The trend was first reported last Thursday in the Rivard Report. Here’s an excerpt from “The Price is Right: Local Architecture Firms Go Solar,” by Iris Dimmick, aboutFreedom Solar Power, whose San Antonio sales team has targeted San Antonio’s architecture community:

It seems like a good marketing plan: by getting architects to install solar panels, those firms become more knowledgeable about the processes and technology, which makes them better at selling solar power to clients, which leads to more business for Freedom Solar Power. On paper, the company does what it does to make money.

But it’s more than marketing. This strategy is also a part of a deeper, environmental effort to spread the word about solar and reduce fossil fuel consumption. Architectural firms are, by definition, designing our future residential and commercial spaces and therefore need to be familiar with energy efficient technologies that the localstate, andfederal governments endorse.

Freedom Solar Power is not just an installer; the company does all the permitting and rebate paperwork, design, engineering and construction necessary to get a custom system up and running.

“We take out all of that background noise,” said Bret Biggart, Freedom Solar’s managing partner.

The company’s San Antonio team of Margo Robertson and Shelbi Jary have already begun expanding their efforts beyond the architecture community, targeting local design and construction firms as well. Paul Karam is having a 22-KW system installed on the roof of his business, MK1 Construction Services.

Part of Karam’s work includes using fly ash, a by-product from coal-burning power plants, to make a strong, quick-drying concrete. MK1 buys more than 11,000 tons of fly ash each year from a company that buys it from CPS Energy (the utility recycles all its fly ash — more than 270,000 tons in 2011).

“I recycle on a large scale, and am very conscientious about being green,” said Karam. “Our roof has great exposure to the sun, and I couldn’t pass up the rebate.”

“It’s among the best in the country,” said Freedom Solar’s Robertson. “It’s incredibly progressive for a municipally-owned utility to offer it.”

The rebate, of up to $2 per AC watt for commercial systems, is part of CPS Energy’s larger effort to save 771 megawatts of power by 2020, enough to defer building a power plant. CPS Energy has earmarked $849 million to do so, much of that in the form of rebates for everything from rooftop solar to commercial lighting and building retrofits.

Thirty-one commercial installations have been installed since the end of August this year, and dozens more are in the pipeline, according to Solar San Antonio, which works to connect residents and businesses with installers and low-cost financing. The pace has picked up dramatically since 2007, when just one commercial project was completed.

That’s in large part due to the drastic drop in solar pv pricing. In 2007, when CPS Energy first began offering a rebate, said Lanny Sinkin, executive director of SSA, the average price was about $7.50 a watt; today, it’s closer to $3.50 a watt.

Total costs have been dropping even more dramatically, he said: “We’re seeing installation costs at half the price we saw a year ago.”

CPS Energy recently agreed to frontload its rebate dollars, which were originally planned to be available until 2020. Now they’ll be paid out by 2015. That’s a response to the increasing demand, while also acknowledging that the rebate was never meant to be permanent ¿ as the price of solar continues to drop, rebates will become unnecessary.

“We’ve allocated STEP funding to a range of programs, from appliance rebates to weatherizing low-income homes,” said Vice President of Customer Service Maria Koudouris. “Bringing the total solar dollars forward was an easy decision, since it will help our local solar industry grow and become self-sustaining.”

Those interested in seeing the architecture firms’ pv systems will have a chance during this year’s Solar Fest, to be held Oct. 6 and 7. In addition to the usual self-guided tour of solar homes and businesses, Solar San Antonio will offer bus tours, including one which will focus exclusively on the architectural community’s recent embrace of rooftop solar.

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