Plano Solar Advocates Spread Solar Usage

group in Plano wants to school their neighbors in solar energy in hopes of making it more commonplace in North Texas. Launched in 2012, the Plano Solar Advocates is made up of solar enthusiasts that say solar power should be the next big source of energy in Texas. Larry Howe, a retired electric al engineer and one of the founders of the group, had already put solar panels on his home when he helped form Plano Solar Advocates.

He saw solar as the best renewable energy option for the typical homeowner that doesn’t have a yard big enough for a wind turbine. Solar is non-polluting and offers an added benefit of generating electricity on-site. Howe says, “If you generate the electricity where you use it, there’s less energy loss than transmitting over a long distance.” Solar seems to be catching on in San Antonio and Austin, but Dallas-Fort Worth lags behind [other major cities, even though costs have come down dramatically.

Howe and others saw that people’s lack of knowledge about solar power was holding them back from taking the solar power plunge. “We have this untapped energy resource in Texas, why aren’t we using it?” says Howe. He the group decided to initiate a program that would not only educate residents about the process, but also guide them through a group purchase to help lower costs. They borrowed a concept that had already been tested in other communities around the country and set out to “solarize” Plano.

The group held information workshops and online seminars that drew about 175 people from the community. Attendees got a crash course in solar energy, learning to calculate how much they needed, decipher federal tax credits and figure out which electric companies offered buy-backs on solar power. “There are a lot of hurdles,” says Howe. “This helps them get over those.”The most frequently asked question is how long does it take for the energy savings to pay for the upfront investment? Howe answers that it’s about eight to 10 years. While people hesitate over the cost, he says that’s not atypical for big home improvement projects. “People remodel kitchens for a lot more than it costs you to put solar on your house, “ he notes.

Howe shares that the group helps project enrollees assess solar installation company bids and interview finalists, with participants making the final selection. Of those homeowners that attended the workshops, 50 had their sites surveyed for solar power. Ultimately, 25 signed contracts, at about a 20 percent discount on typical rates. This year, about 200 people enrolled in the program. At the end of the process, 22 are now under contract to get solar.

Howe looking forward to 2015, when the group is considering changing their format and incorporating a program used by a San Antonio group, that is working one-on-one with individuals to move people quickly through the program. He says that solar is still relatively unknown, but it’s only a matter of time before solar power becomes part of the status quo and there won’t be a need for a group like theirs.“As more and more people purchase solar and more people talk it about it, it won’t be that unusual,” he says.

With the success of Solarize Plano as Texas’ first solarization program, other communities in the Metroplex are launching efforts to educate themselves to take control of their energy production and save money. Solarize Garland launched in January at about the same time the Fredericksburg Shines program.

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Julie Thibodeaux is a regular contributor to Natural Awakenings Dallas.

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