Houston solar power lags far behind other Texas cities

HOUSTON — A new study from a Texas-based environmentalist group finds that Houston is lagging behind other cities in its use of solar power.

Though the city touts itself as the largest municipal purchase of renewable energy in the country, Houston’s solar capacity ranks third in Texas  — behind San Antonio and Austin — and 32nd in the country.

The Environment Texas Research and Policy Center,  which conducted the analysis, said the study is the first to compare the growth of solar between American cities.

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The study noted that the top 20 cities with the most solar capacity, which include San Antonio and Austin, collectively have more solar power within their city limits than the entire nation had six years ago.

“The progress we are seeing here and around the country should give us the confidence we can do more,” said Dani Neuharth-Keusch, a field associate with the center, in a statement.

Houston has 4 megawatts of photovoltaic capacity, according to the study — dramatically less than San Antonio’s 84 megawatts and Austin’s 13 megawatts. Los Angeles tops the list among U.S. cities, with 132 megawatts of solar capacity.

On a per capita basis, Houston was even lower on the list, ranking 52.

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Despite Houston’s low rank, the organization praised the city for generating solar power from facilities at Discovery Green, the George R. Brown Convention Center, the City Hall annex building and the city’s permitting center. It also highlighted a rooftop installation at the IKEA furniture store on I-10.

The data for Houston was based on information provided by Centerpoint Energy, the electric transmission utility serving the city.

The report also praised recent steps by the city to work toward streamlining permitting processes for solar panels.

Luke Metzger, director of Environment Texas, said Houston’s low ranking is partly due to the fact that Centerpoint Energy is one of the few utilities in the state that doesn’t offer solar incentives.

San Antonio and Austin meanwhile have publicly owned utilities, CPS Energy and Austin Energy. “Austin and San Antonio have an advantage,” Metzger said. “They own their utilities, so they can set a goal for solar and make it happen.”

Austin Energy, for example, offers a solar rebate program that pays customers $1,250 per kilowatt of solar capacity they install. It also has a financing program that can offer loans for solar infrastructure of up to $20,000, according to the report. CPS Energy in San Antonio has a solar rebate program too, with extra funding for customers who use local solar installers.

But in Houston, where electric utilities are deregulated, “it’s harder to come up with a program and pass the cost of the program to ratepayers.”

He said there is no statewide incentive program in Texas for solar panels, though there are some breaks on sales taxes paid for equipment.

Other states like California — home to Los Angeles and San Diego, the top two cities for solar — have set aggressive goals for solar capacity and offered robust incentives to encourage installation, Metzger said.

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