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Businessman says solar power makes perfect business sense

Monday, May 11, 2009 by Bill McCann

To Lew Aldridge, who considers himself a practical businessman, Austin Energy’s program that offers substantial rebates to customers who install solar power is a “no brainer.”


The rebates, combined with federal tax credits, make solar power “an incredible investment for residents and commercial businesses in Austin,” Aldridge said. “With the environmental and financial benefits, I don’t understand why people aren’t standing in line to do it. “


Aldridge should know. He has a solar power, or photovoltaic, system installed at his own home. And he is one of three managing partners of Alori Properties, a residential and commercial property management firm that has become the leader in producing solar power in Austin. Alori Properties’ partnerships have installed solar photovoltaic panels at nine apartment complexes and eight commercial properties with the aid of Austin Energy rebates. The rebates help offset the cost of installing photovoltaic systems and help stimulate the market.


The combined 1,406 solar panels at the 17 Alori properties are capable of generating 246 kilowatts of power on sunny days, according to Aldridge. Photovoltaic, or solar cells, which are typically made of silicon, collect sunlight and convert it into electricity without burning fuels.


Two of Alori’s projects – Turnberry Apartments on E. 40th St. and Orleans Apartments on W. 38th St. – are among eight, totaling about $760,000 in rebates, up for final approval by the City Council on Thursday. (Rebates for amounts over $50,000 require Council approval.)


The eight solar projects are the biggest batch of rebate requests that have gone for Council approval at one time since the program began in 2004, according to Leslie Libby, solar rebate program manager at Austin Energy.  Besides the Alori projects, the eight include condominiums, apartments and a South Austin HEB store on Brodie Lane.


To date, Austin Energy has handed out more than $12.9 million in rebates for roughly 760 residential and commercial solar electric projects, according to Austin Energy. Most of the projects (more than 700) and the money ($9.1 million) are residential systems.


The 760 projects are capable of generating a total of nearly 4 million kilowatt-hours of power a year. The rebate program is one of the ways that Austin Energy plans to meet the city’s ambitious goal that 30 percent of the power delivered to customers by 2020 will come from renewable energy, such as solar and wind.


The solar power rebate currently stands at $3.75 per watt generated, This covers between 40 and 60 percent of the installed cost of a project. Until March 12, Austin Energy offered a rebate of $4.50 per watt, but scaled it back after the U.S. Congress increased renewable-energy incentives. The idea was that even at the lower number the city rebate, combined with federal incentives, would continue to be attractive. By reducing its rebate, Austin Energy will be able to help support more solar projects from its $4 million fiscal year rebate budget, according to Austin Energy officials.


When Austin Energy made the switch on March 12, it gave local solar contractors a heads-up, resulting in a number of applications coming in that day, including the eight commercial projects, according to Libby. Austin Energy is honoring those applications at the higher rebate level, she said.


The Alori project at the Orleans Apartments, for example, is estimated to cost $179,500. The $100,000 rebate offered by the city will cover about 56 percent of that cost. The project, in turn, will save an estimated 31,058 kilowatt-hours of power a year. That is enough to provide electricity to three average Austin homes, and save more than 20 tons of carbon dioxide from getting into the air, Austin Energy calculates.


It may take about 10 years for a solar investor to pay back his or her share of the cost of a project, Aldridge said. “But the next 15 years of power the system generates will be free. As responsible citizens, if people have the means to do it (install solar), they should do it.”

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