Solar Austin Helps Remove Obstacles to Clean Energy
By Sheila Julson
Despite the widespread availability of solar photovoltaic systems and lower prices for solar equipment, there are still barriers for some people to harness the clean energy of the sun. Enter Solar Austin, a nonprofit organization dedicated to expanding access to solar energy to everyone to help mitigate climate change and create a healthier community while fostering a strong local economy. “We want the community to have access to this clean energy source and reduce their energy bills, and we want the local community to benefit from jobs in the solar industry that are being created in Austin,” says Kaiba White, president of Solar Austin.
Solar Austin began informally in 2002 when advocates and people working in the solar industry gathered to encourage Austin Energy to establish a rebate for solar users. “At that time, there were no rebates in Austin,” White says. “But Solar Austin was successful in advocating for Austin Energy to establish solar rebate programs, which they did in 2003.”
Solar Austin engages in education, advocacy and other programs such as the recently implemented Equitable Clean Energy Jobs Program. The educational component consists of speaking to adults and youth about various clean energy topics or environmental issues that are usually linked to energy—solar in particular, such as how solar energy works and the role it plays in our daily lives.
“We have a set of solar powered car kits for fifth and sixth grade classes,” White relates. “We take them to Earth Day and other events. We help kids build solar car kits and they go out and race them. It starts the process, teaching them about solar energy.”
“The main way we’re trying to help in an area is by changing policies and programs,” White explains. “We will help people evaluate if they are looking to purchase solar on their own, and if they have questions about the proposals received. But for some folks, it’s not just a matter of choosing the best proposal; they don’t have the money to spend on solar. Solar saves money in the long run, but it does require an upfront investment or financing. Some people won’t qualify for financing, so we’re working to get programs to allow for people to get solar systems without an upfront cost.”
Those programs include helping people rent roof space for solar panels; advocating for programs that would give added incentives for affordable housing; and changing the billing system to allow multi-family housing to more easily utilize solar.
White is particularly excited about Solar Austin’s most recent offering, the Equitable Clean Energy Jobs Program, in which they’ve partnered with Huston-Tillotson University to improve diversity in green jobs focused in the clean energy sector. Funded through the City of Austin, Solar Austin works with local solar companies to identify internship positions and help recruit women and students of color to fill those paid internship positions.
White has seen many accomplishments on the policy side since she joined Solar Austin in 2012. “Austin has a unique way of compensating solar customers for the energy they produce and making sure that value of the solar rate is maintained to levels that are fair to customers and encourages solar development,” she says. “We have also been successful in maintaining the rebate program, despite efforts to eliminate that.”
As of August 2019, approximately 500 businesses in Austin? use solar. In addition, at least 8,300 single family homes have solar power, 82 multi-family properties use solar to serve common areas, and 670 multi-family units have solar energy systems, says White. Look for those numbers to increase as Solar Austin participates in upcoming community events where they will demonstrate their solar car kits, offer educational materials, and present an informational kiosk powered by solar energy.