Solar panels become a cash cow for some Texans

Despite Houston’s sweltering heat, Grady Hill hasn’t paid an electric bill since 2009.

He keeps his thermostat set at a comfortable 78 degrees when he’s home, but a combination of solar panels and an energy-efficient home have helped him make more power than he uses for most of the year.

That excess power goes to his electric company, Green Mountain Energy, which gives him credits that he taps during the summer months, when he tends to use more than he generates. He earns credits at the same rate he pays, 12.915 cents per kilowatt hour, for the first 500 kwh he generates. Green Mountain buys the rest for half that rate.

At the end of June, when his 3,200-square-foot home used 522 kwh, he had a credit balance of $288.82.

Yes, he wanted to be green, he says, but the savings are the real incentive.

Businesses see opportunities in such green and thrifty consumer sentiment.

Hundreds of customers have signed up for the energy buyback program since Green Mountain introduced it 2009, said company product manager Jason Sears.

Retail providers including Green Mountain and Reliant, both owned by New Jersey-based NRG Energy, also have introduced leasing plans to reduce the cost barriers customers confront if they buy solar panels. Sears declined to say how many Green Mountain customers are participating in the program.


Grady’s house is part of Discovery at Spring Trails, Houston’s first master-planned community participating in General Electric’s “ecomagination” home-builder program, which involves designing homes to lower carbon dioxide emissions and equipping them with GE products and appliances.

Discovery at Spring Trails has 264 developed lots and just under 900 acres to be developed, said Michael Casey, general manager of Land Tejas Spring Trails Ltd., the partnership developing the community.

Homes in the project initially came with solar panels on the roof or a detached trellis designed to provide both shade and solar power.

Those became optional after some potential homebuyers said they didn’t want the solar equipment, Casey said.

The partnership filed for bankruptcy earlier this year but said the bankruptcy is unrelated to its focus on green building. Casey said the partnership took the action because its lender, Amegy, moved to sell the loan to investors who wanted to take over the project.

“We filed because we needed to protect ourselves,” he said, declining to disclose the amount of the loan. Amegy declined to comment.

The developer is subject to two liens — for debts of $31 million to Forestar USA Real Estate Group and $8 million to FFS Investments — according to court documents the partnership recently filed.

July 2009: Bill was $40

When Hill and his wife bought their house for $300,000, it had double-pane windows, three feet of insulation in the attic and energy-efficient appliances. The Hills added a tankless water heater, ceiling fans, solar panels and a few other items for $60,000.

The five-kilowatt solar system cost about $22,000 after federal tax rebates, and the Hills also saved because the home was pre-wired for a solar system.

The couple moved in during the summer of 2009. The electric bill that July? $40.

But because of the high up-front costs, the solar industry has struggled to break into the local homeowner market even though many residents spend hundreds of dollars a month keeping homes cool in the scorching summer.

Craig Lobel, president of EcoEdge Consulting, an energy efficiency firm working with Discovery at Spring Trails, said it only makes financial sense to add solar after making less expensive investments. These include efficient appliances and light bulbs and radiant barriers to keep heat out of the attic.

New homes in Discovery at Spring Trails come equipped with those energy-efficient features and an electronic monitor that shows residents how much energy they consume and how much they generate if their houses are solar-equipped.

“You have to build the home efficient from the ground up,” Lobel said. “You can’t just put a Band-Aid on an inefficient home. After ?homeowners monitor their energy use for several months, many choose to add more solar panels to work toward being grid neutral,” Lobel said.

Grid-neutral homes will become more common as building codes require more efficiency and homeowners start to think of utility bills as long-term capital investments rather than expenses, said Joel Greenberg, an Austin-based energy auditor.

“A lot of efficiency pays back within five years. Solar can pay back within five or 15,” he said. “And if you make your home efficient first, you spend less on the solar.”

Ahead of the game

Aside from the costs, homeowners have also faced resistance from homeowner associations that say the panels are unsightly, hurt property values or violate deed restrictions. State legislation passed this year prevents homeowner associations from prohibiting the installation of solar panels.

The law is expected to bring the state more competition from industry players.

That means Grady Hill is ahead of the game.

“Electricity is not going to get any cheaper, and one of these days I’m going to be on fixed income,” said Hill, who is the director of a municipal utility district in Montgomery County. “My wife and I are going to be grateful we’re not paying a large electricity bill of $350 to $550 a month because that’s how much it would cost without these panels and other efficiencies.”