May 12--A San Antonio company's planned expansion, bolstered by a new financing deal, is looking to offer some of the benefits of solar power to households and businesses in other Texas cities and Southwestern states -- without having to install panels on their rooftops.
Go Smart Solar is pilot-testing a project in San Antonio, installing solar panels at commercial parking lots and a truck dealership. The panels are located away from residential areas, but homeowners and businesses buy the remote panels and claim rebates from CPS Energy that can cover all or part of their electric bill.
Officials at the community solar company said they are discussing similar projects with three utilities in Texas and other Southwestern states. If all three agreements come through, they'd entail debt and equity investments totaling $150 million.
The financing would largely come from DSD, a renewable energy company started by General Electric. Its current majority owner is BlackRock Inc., the world's largest money manager.
Go Smart's program in San Antonio, called Big Sun Community Solar, strings together large numbers of solar panels, mainly at office-park parking lots, essentially creating huge covered carports. The solar panels are owned by the homeowners and businesses participating in the program.
DSD officials said they will provide a combination of loans and equity to Go Smart Solar on a project by project basis. However, they declined to detail the finance packages or say whether they could potentially total the $150 million that Go Smart would need if it wins the bids on all three solar projects.
Go Smart Solar's "development expertise, combined with our extensive project execution track record and capital financing capabilities, will enable successful programs in other communities," said Cameron Bard, DSD's senior director of distribution level development in a statement.
DSD has built solar roofed carports across the United in retail shopping centers, private companies, casinos and health care facilities.
But the partnership with Go Smart would be a new way for DSD to deliver solar because of the participation of residents and business paying for the solar panels. DSD would manage construction of the solar car roofs while Go Smart is expected to continue to sell the solar panels to participants in the roofless solar program.
Go Smart Solar CEO Robert Miggins said the San Antonio pilot project is "version 1.0." of what the company plans to do.
"We've got a bank loan and some other capital, but it is more of a bootstrapped approach," he said of the San Antonio pilot.
So far in San Antonio, 241 homeowners, condo owners, apartment residents and businesses have signed up for the one-year-old roofless Big Sun Community Solar program. The company has installed about 600 covered solar-paneled parking roofs at four office parks and at a Rush Enterprises truck dealership.
By the end of this year, Big Sun Community Solar plans to have installed solar panels atop 2,000 San Antonio parking spaces at more than a dozen locations.
The 3 megawatts of solar power generated -- which could increase to 5 megawatts in coming months -- go into CPS Energy's power grid. The city-owned utility then credits the community solar customers on their bills during the next 25 years.
Participating in the project isn't cheap.
Lissa Martinez, a retired engineer, and her husband Brian Hughes, an entrepreneur who serves on the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's board of trustees, paid $23,000 to participate in the community solar program for their home in Castle Hills late last year. They receive a 30 percent federal tax credit, which helped make the expense easier to take.
The upfront costs cover their electrical bill for the next 25 years, which averaged around $100 a month.
"I wanted to put my money where my mouth is," said Martinez who had served as a member of the SA Climate Ready Advisory Committee, the group that's monitoring the city initiative to deal with climate change.
Miggins said the residents in the program can't install their own solar panels for a variety of reasons. Maybe their houses are poorly positioned to collect sunlight or they live in an apartment building.
Big Sun Community Solar builds the solar roof carports at no cost to participating commercial property owners, and charges a monthly fee for each space. In turn, office park tenants pay the owners an extra fee for shaded parking spots.
Big Sun Community Solar built 391 solar car ports at four office complexes managed by San Antonio commercial real estate company Worth & Associates late last year and in early 2020.
"It's a lot more comfortable getting into your car in the summer when its parked under a shaded space," said Clint Worth, president of development and brokerage. He said shaded parking is an amenity tenants will pay for in the San Antonio summer heat.
Big Sun is the second community solar program offered by CPS Energy. The first offered a similar deal to 250 homeowners in 2016, but the panels were located at a solar farm.
The programs are a small part of CPS Energy's alternative energy initiative. About 20 percent of the utility's generation comes from solar and wind farms, an output that environmentalists have pressed the utility company to expand.
Go Smart Solar employs around a dozen people. Miggins, who has worked in the solar industry for six years, partnered with Jason Pittman, an engineer who serves as the firm's president.
Miggins said expansion to other cities is critical to growing the company. But he acknowledged that Go Smart's growth could be slowed by utility companies dealing with coronavirus-related issues.
"I think the virus has put a question mark around the timing of these things, but we are hopeful that will have some announcements later this year," he said.
Randy Diamond covers aviation, energy and manufacturing in the San Antonio and Bexar County area. To read more from Randy, become a subscriber. firstname.lastname@example.org
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