The company that pioneered all-wind electricity plans is launching an all-solar plan that it says could spur expansion of large-scale solar power in Texas.
Green Mountain Energy, which played a substantial role in purchasing electricity from wind resources and encouraging more wind generation, announced its new plan Thursday.
It could lead to more solar power in Texas, which has more untapped solar potential than any other state but ranked 10th last year in solar installations, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association. Including all usable land in Texas, aside from just rooftops, the state has twice as much solar potential as any other, the association said.
Green Mountain hopes that as consumers buy into the new SolarSPARC product — the acronym stands for “smart people accelerating renewable change” — the company will be able to build more solar and increase the amount installed in the state.
“We’re empowering all of our customers to benefit from solar, not just those with a roof that can work with putting up their own panels,” said Shay Ohrel, product innovation manager for Green Mountain.
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The all-solar plan will work like Green Mountain’s all-wind plans: Most customers will pay for solar electricity to be generated and used elsewhere, while using electricity produced from closer sources and paid for by other customers.
The idea is that while some customers won’t actually receive solar power, they will be paying for solar and creating more demand for its generation.
That approach, used by all-wind plans, has helped to green the Texas grid in the past, since adding more renewable generation reduces the need for fossil fuel-based power, said Tom “Smitty” Smith, director of Public Citizen’s Texas Office.
“When you buy green power it’s kind of like putting clean energy into a dirty brown bathtub and the more clean energy we put into that dirty brown bathtub of our skies the less pollution we’re going to suffer because of power plants,” Smith said.
“And partially because people have signed up for green power products, Texas now leads the nation in wind energy and is producing on some days as much as a quarter of the energy consumed in the state from wind power.”
Other factors have also helped to add wind generation in Texas, including the state’s Renewable Portfolio Standard, which mandates how much renewable energy electricity providers must purchase.
Still, renewables account for less than 20 percent of the state’s total generation capacity, and solar power is less than 1 percent of renewables.
And the new Green Mountain solar plan is not going to be cheap. Houston customers will be able to sign up for a year-long plan at around 14 cents per kilowatt-hour, about 75 percent more than the cheapest one-year plans available in the area, according to powertochoose.org, the state’s listing of electricity plans.
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Each cent per kilowatt-hour adds about $13 to the average monthly bill, said R.A. Dyer, policy analyst for the Texas Coalition for Affordable Power. The cheapest one-year plans available in Houston cost about 8 cents per kilowatt-hour of electricity.
“In one sense, this is a way that the market does provide some benefit to consumers in that they have the ability to choose these sorts of products,” Dyer said. “But I need to say that if the affordability of power is important to them they need to take a hard long look at prices before they move forward.”
Initial customers won’t pay for solar energy generated in Texas, since little is available, Ohrel said. Green Mountain is building a 10-kilowatt demonstration solar system at one of its wind farms and will add solar installations depending on how many customers sign up for the plan.
For now, the company will use customer payments to purchase solar power from generation in other states, while arranging for other power to be delivered to Texas all-solar customers, Ohrel said.
Installing solar panels on a home might be a better bet for consumers who want solar energy, according to Houston-based Texas Solar Outfitters. Rooftop solar panels require big up-front costs — about $24,000 for the average residential system, before accounting for savings from a federal 30 percent incentive.
But the large installation cost gives customers power that would average out to about 10 cents per kilowatt-hour over 25 years, which is the length of solar panel warranties, according to Texas Solar Outfitters.
That option may make sense for some homeowners, but others who rent or don’t have ideal rooftops have not had a solar option, said Barry Lefer, associate professor of the University of Houston’s Earth and Atmospheric Sciences
Department and the first customer for Green Mountain’s all-solar plan.
Lefer frequently speaks about climate change and encourages students and friends to purchase renewable power, but has not been able to use solar panels himself, he said.
“We have a lot of trees in our neighborhood and so i don’t have good southern exposure at my house,” he said.
So Lefer, who said he got no financial incentive from Green Mountain when signing up for its new plan, said the all-solar option was a good opportunity for him to support more solar energy generation.
“My message is and will be that yes, these small and everyday actions that you take, deciding what kind of transportation you use, deciding what kind of electricity you choose to purchase, really do make a difference,” he said.
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