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Council approves solar-ready resolution

Friday, February 3, 2017 by Jack Craver

In spite of objections from the Home Builders Association of Greater Austin, City Council approved a resolution Thursday aimed at making all future buildings in the city “solar-ready.”

The resolution, which passed 10-1, with only Council Member Ellen Troxclair in opposition, kicks off the process of amending the city’s energy code. If an ordinance mirroring the resolution is ultimately approved, builders will be required to leave a certain amount of space on rooftops to allow the property owner to install solar panels.

Advocates of the resolution stress that a “solar-ready” ordinance will not require any building to include solar technology. It only mandates that builders avoid putting pipes or vents on a certain amount of the south-facing side of a building’s roof so that panels can be put in place if the owner chooses.

“This does not put solar panels on people’s roofs,” said Council Member Leslie Pool, the lead sponsor of the resolution. Making sure that buildings allow people to easily install panels in the future will ultimately save homeowners and businesses money, she added.

And yet, Mayor Steve Adler and a couple of others on the dais voiced reluctance to mandate something that could affect affordability. To that end, Adler offered an amendment instructing staff to solicit advice from commissions on the proposed policy as it relates to the city’s “competing priorities of environmental, developmental and affordability goals.”

Adler reasoned that his amendment would allow commissions to more freely evaluate the proposed policy without feeling pressured to recommend that the city OK the mandate.

Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo objected to the suggestion that the city’s environmental goals were in conflict with its efforts to reduce costs for homeowners. She proposed her own amendment to Adler’s to strike that language. It narrowly passed, prompting Adler to say he wanted to postpone the resolution and Council Member Pio Renteria to suggest he would no longer support the resolution over affordability concerns.

Kaiba White, an environmental policy analyst for Public Citizen, pointed out that both the Electric Utility Commission and the Resource Management Commission have already approved resolutions in the past year in support of a solar-ready ordinance. The idea had been plenty vetted, she argued.

Further complicating things, Glen Coleman, representing the Home Builders Association, said the group wanted to support a solar-ready ordinance as it has done in other cities in Texas, but that it could not back it unless Austin changes its plumbing code.

The uniform plumbing code, which the city uses as opposed to the international code, typically requires each fixture (such as a toilet or sink) to have an individual pipe that penetrates through a vent on the top of a building, taking up more space on the roof. The pipes can be combined and put through one vent, but that is more expensive, said Coleman.

Chap Thornton, the business agent for Plumbers and Pipefitters Local 286, told the Austin Monitor that the international code has “some pretty loose allowances” and that the city should maintain what he called a “strong” code.

However, Council ultimately agreed to approve the resolution after Adler offered a small change that broadened the direction to any commissions that will take up the issue. The final resolution, therefore, directed them to make recommendations with regard to the proposed ordinance “and any alternatives.”

White told the Monitor that she is confident that the commissions that have already supported the concept outlined in the resolution will do so again.

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