Following Community Advocacy, Austin Energy Rolls Out Community Solar for Low-income Residents

After two years of slogging through the permitting process, Austin Energy brought the La Loma solar project online last month—giving a massive boost to our city-owned utility’s Community Solar Program. But what is community solar, and how can you sign up? Can I afford to sign up as a low-income person/Customer Assistance Program (CAP) beneficiary? (Answer: YES!) How much does community solar cost for non-CAP participants, and what are the pros and cons of signing up? Keep reading and we will guide you through all of these questions.

Austin Energy’s recent press release on the completion of La Loma explains what community solar is on a very basic level and who can benefit: “Community Solar comes from a solar power plant where the electricity is shared by more than one household. Users do not need to own rooftops on which to place solar panels. Community solar provides solar power to renters, people with shaded roofs, and residents who can’t afford the upfront costs of rooftop solar. More than half of Austin Energy customers are renters and have limited access to rooftop solar.”

The La Loma Community Solar Project is a utility-scale array of “more than 9,000 panels, adding up to 2.5 megawatts, that will produce at least 4,400 megawatt-hours of [electricity] per year.” La Loma is located “just northeast of Springdale Road and Airport Boulevard and adjacent to the Utility’s Kingsbery substation,” and includes the exciting addition of “a 1.5 MW grid-scale battery at the Kingsbery substation to test solar and storage integration.”

Notably, the completion of La Loma comes with the announcement that Austin Energy will provide a discount for low-income community solar participants. As a result of advocacy from Solar Austin and the Springdale-Airport Neigh­bor­hood Association for programs that will improve access to solar, Austin City Council adopted a resolution directing Austin Energy to spend $500,000 in fiscal year 2018 on solar for “multi-family affordable housing, low-income residents, renters, and non-profits.” In order to meet this goal, Austin Energy is developing a shared solar feature in their billing system to allow access to solar benefits for multifamily housing residents and started this low-income community solar program.

Through this low-income solar program, half of La Loma’s capacity is reserved for CAP beneficiaries (those at or below 200% of the federal poverty level). This will allow about 200 CAP beneficiaries to “subscribe to 100 percent solar energy at a rate slightly below their current power supply rate.” CAP customers have until March 31st to sign up.

For the first time ever in Austin, not only can some low-income residents get access to solar, but they will also immediately save money by doing so—instead of paying an upfront coast. This is a huge step in the right direction from Austin Energy.

To register for community solar or the low-income solar program, all you need is your Austin Energy Utility Account Number before heading to Austin Energy’s community solar page to fill out the form where you can submit your interest. For more details on the low-income solar program check out the the La Loma press release or this Austin Chronicle article on the low-income solar program.

Now, what are the costs and benefits of community solar for Austin Energy customers who aren’t CAP beneficiaries? Benefits of signing up for community solar include:

  • Contribute to creating a cleaner environment, and slowing climate change.
  • Lock in a fixed rate for 15 years with the Community Solar rate, and avoid paying the Power Supply Adjustment (PSA) fee, which can be changed up to twice per year. This could result in money saved by community solar if the PSA increase.
  • Support the creation of Texas solar jobs.
  • Take a leadership role in supporting the Austin Energy Resource, Generation, and Climate Protection Plan, and specifically the local solar goals (200 MW by 2025).

The cost, on the other hand, is that the Community Solar rate currently adds $10 -$18 to the average subscriber’s monthly energy bill.

The La Loma Community Solar Project is the most recent addition to Austin Energy’s community solar program, building on the initial 185 kW solar array on top of the Palmer Events Center. La Loma’s completion helped bring Austin Energy’s cumulative local solar capacity to 78 MW, enough to power 12,000 homes, on the way to the 2025 goal of 200 MW of local solar. Austin Energy officials hope that the expansion of community solar capacity, as opposed to a continued capacity-based residential rebate program, will lead to greater access to solar for renters, people’s whose homes are ill-suited for solar panels, and some low-income residents.