Advocates pushing solar for Houston businesses

The city of Houston has come a long way in encouraging homeowners to go solar, but businesses are lagging behind because tax and financial incentives are insufficient, policymakers and environmentalists said Wednesday.

“You do things with a carrot,” City Council member Jack Christie said. “Cities have tried things with a stick, and it hasn’t worked. Of course, it hasn’t worked in Washington either.”

Christie was part of a panel discussion on solar energy that was organized by the city and the Texas Gulf Coast chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council.

Data released at the event tells the story.

In 2012, there were 557 solar installations on the books for residential customers, compared to only 54 installations for businesses and other non-residential customers.

“We need to motivate this sector in order to go more for solar,” Angela Bejarano, research manager for the local chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council, said of the commercial side.

Read more: Solar industry reports record growth in 2012

The lack of financial incentives, like good financing, is among the barriers. Bejarano said there also needs to be local legislation to further tax incentives and a streamlined permitting process for businesses. He added that solar installation prices are still high compared to local energy tariffs.

She also asserted that the net metering currently designed for residential solar users should to be applied more to commercial solar users. Net metering is an electricity policy for consumers who own renewable energy facilities such as solar power, wind or home fuel cells. Under such a policy, system owners typically get retail credit for at least a portion of the power they generate.

Even with the drawbacks, the city has come far in its efforts to promote solar energy, officials said.

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“It’s not an unattainable benefit anymore,” said Laura Spanjian, sustainability director for the city of Houston.

The city has been encouraging installers to come to town and set up shop. Houston also has been part of a nationwide initiative to spur growth of solar power.

In particular, it has educated homeowner associations about rules that allow rooftop solar panels in neighborhoods, even in historic neighborhoods. Advocates also have requested funding for code and permit training and to allow for increased online visibility of solar initiatives in the city.

“I know you want to make Houston solar ready,” Spanjian told the audience. “I know you want to make Houston a solar leader. So do I. The more we can work together to do this, the better.”