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Austin Energy, East Austinites talk solar project

Monday, July 6, 2015 by Tyler Whitson

Although solar panels are designed to soak up the sun, Austin Energy spokesperson Carlos Cordova says the utility wants its upcoming local solar project to be “reflective” of the East Austin community that will be its home.

Austin Energy inked a deal in late May with local solar developer PowerFin Texas Solar Projects to construct the 3.2 megawatt solar plant, which will be located on undeveloped land the utility owns adjacent to its Kingsbery Substation, northeast of Springdale Road and Airport Boulevard. It is now working out the details of the development.

Representatives from the utility have been talking with area residents, community groups and stakeholders about the project for the past several weeks. They will continue the conversation Thursday at a meeting of the Springdale-Airport Neighborhood Association, or SANA.

Once online, the project will be the first to provide power to Austin Energy’s upcoming “community solar” program, which will allow customers who cannot or choose not to install solar panels on their property to subscribe to energy generated at the site. Though subscribers will pay more for the energy – at least for a time – the program is not supposed to impact rates for other customers.

Susana Almanza, director of People Organized in the Defense of Earth and Her Resources, spoke with Austin Energy representatives about the project recently and summed up her viewpoint in an interview with the Monitor on Tuesday.

“I was very much concerned that lower-income people couldn’t afford the additional cost of subscribing, therefore not really benefiting from a solar project that’s in their backyard,” Almanza said. “I think everyone’s in agreement that solar energy is the direction that we want to go in. We just want to make sure that we’re going to benefit from it.”

Almanza added that the site is in “an area which is lower-income, where people are struggling.”

Cordova told the Austin Monitor on Tuesday that Austin Energy is considering ways to provide benefits to area residents, regardless of whether they subscribe to the program.

“We realize that it’s a premium product and it costs more,” he said. “The reason we’re doing a lot of this outreach and connecting with the different neighborhood groups and other projects and initiatives in the area is because we want to be able to provide community benefits in other ways.”

Some ideas Cordova listed include providing educational programs in area schools and community centers, connecting with nearby programs and developments such as thinkEAST, providing pedestrian access at the site, giving area residents the first opportunity to sign up for the program, designing the project so that it fits with the neighborhood aesthetically and taking community input on its name.

Cordova added that he hopes the project will provide jobs to neighborhood residents and that developing the vacant lot will cut down on potentially illicit activities.

SANA President Pete Rivera lives near the project site and has also spoken with Austin Energy representatives about it. He commented on the issue in an interview with the Monitor on Wednesday.

“I feel that the solar panel facility will probably be a plus for our neighborhood, because it kind of helps put us in the spotlight, where we’re involved in something,” Rivera said. “I think, altogether, it’s a great thing.”

Rivera did, however, have concerns about the cost of the program. “If anybody wants to subscribe to it, (utility representatives) were saying that it’s going to be a little bit higher than the regular generated electricity that everybody gets through Austin Energy,” he said. “It kind of brought a lot of eyebrows up.”

Rivera said he is looking forward to a point in time where subscriptions to the program may be more obtainable. “We would like to see some affordable prices,” he said.

Cordova said that Austin Energy does not know yet how much customers will pay per “block” of solar energy to which they subscribe, because those details are in the works. However, since the program will provide customers with “value of solar” credits that will apply to their electric bills, it may, in the future, reduce their costs.

“Eventually, the solar credits a customer receives through the community solar project could exceed their subscription fee, so their solar subscription would actually be saving them money,” Cordova said. “So there could be a long-term benefit, even if it costs more today.”

Rivera said he also wants Austin Energy to make sure that the project is safe and deters people from attempting to trespass on the property, while continuing to provide residents with access through or around it. “The kids are still using it right now to cross over the railroad tracks to get to Eastside Memorial High School,” he explained.

Cordova said that Austin Energy will take extensive safety precautions and is working on pedestrian access issues.

“Some students cut through the substation where the community solar project is going to be because it’s a faster way to Eastside Memorial High School,” Cordova said. “I’m sure it’s not recommended by the school district to cut through there, and it’s not a safe route, so we want to work on those access issues to help improve that.”

Rivera said that the lot has been around since he was a child and could be home to unsavory activities. “I’d kind of feel safer that there’s something back there that is connected with the city of Austin … and knowing that there’s something positive going on back there, instead of something negative.”

Photo of Pete Rivera and his brother Raymond Rivera walking the future site of the Austin Energy community solar project from the film “La Loma (or the Place Sometimes Called Hungry Hill),” courtesy of Deborah Esquenazi.

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