Jay Squyres' home in Flower Mound above and below. Aerial views show extensive solar panels, but also show that most of the project is shielded from street view.
May 10, 2016
When Jay Squyres installed his first solar rooftop array in 2009, the homeowner’s association in his Flower Mound subdivision went ballistic. Alarmed that the shiny panels on Squyres’ roof would somehow degrade values or mar the aesthetics of the affluent, treed and master-planned Wellington community, his HOA sued him. Twice.
At a state hearing during the protracted legal battle, one HOA manager fumed, “You can see the panels from the cul-de-sac.” Another testified that Squyres had installed 136 solar panels, an amount she presented as excessive on its face.
Squyres, a businessman who owns the transport company Apex Express, had pushed the envelope, nearly blanketing his roof with the photovoltaic panels and setting up an additional array at ground level in a side yard. The project was extensive, though not so visible. Mature trees and his house shielded most of these panels from sight.
The system consisted of three installations, erected over three years, with a total capacity of 30 Kilowatts of power. Generous rebates from power delivery service Oncor combined with an energy efficiency tax deduction from the federal government helped Squyres pay for his early, enthusiastic embrace of home solar. By year three, he’d created a “net zero” household, which most months, produces more energy than it uses. Squyres sells this excess electricity back to the grid, after powering everything for his spacious house, plus charging two electric Teslas in the garage. Jay, wife Misty and their two kids, had become Flower Mound’s model low-carbon footprint family.
The legal battle with the Wellington HOA was eventually settled through mediation (a judge dismissed the first lawsuit); and in 2011, a state law came along to help quell HOA bullying over solar panels. The Texas law mandates that HOA’s must accept reasonable solar installations and can only stop those that are a safety hazard or egregiously unaesthetic.
Jay Squyres has tracked residential solar installation in DFW from 2008-present. Photo by Brett Kessler.
In 2014, the town of Flower Mound seemed to catch up with Squyres’ view that homeowners have a right to install solar panels. Asked to consider the issue, the Planning and Zoning Board, came down in favor of allowing rooftop installations. That same year, Flower Mound’s town council issued a proclamation supporting Squyres and his fellow solar aficionados at the DFW Solar Tour. A survey of Squyres’ neighbors had already shown that 72 percent supported the concept of rooftop solar panels. One neighbor even appeared at the town council to explain that Squyres project was a draw, not a deterrent to home buyers.
“This is one of the things that attracted me to this neighborhood,” James Johnson said. “I think Mr. Squyres’ home is beautiful.”
DFW SOLAR BY THE NUMBERS
A shift had taken place, or maybe the sentiment had been there all along. Either way, it turned out that far more people wanted to join Squyres than fight him.
Homeowners in the DFW area were increasingly going solar and Squyres was still in the thick of it, documenting the transition. For the past several years, he has painstakingly assembled statistics on solar rooftops by tabulating the permits issued by all the municipalities in the DFW region. He volunteers his time for the DFW Solar Tour, a local advocacy that’s linked in with similar groups across the nation.
The numbers show that solar ownership is growing by leaps. When Squyres began his own solar project in 2009, he was among just 94 homeowners in North Texas who installed rooftop arrays. By 2015, 2,025 homeowners came aboard with residential solar, according to Squyres’ data.
All told, the DFW region now has a grand total of 4,469 solar rooftops installed overall across 17 counties, according to Squyres’ speadsheet.
Chart shows residential solar installations picking up over past 8 years. The total of 4,444 lags just behind the grand total of 4,469 installations, Squyres says. Courtesy of Jay Squyres.
Residential solar appears poised to take another big jump in 2016.
Oncor, the electric connection company that serves people in the DFW region, as well as parts of Central and West Texas, has taken 535 requests for residential solar rebates so far this year. That’s nearly as many as the 573 residential rebates issued in all of 2015. (Commercial solar projects also are growing, with requests for 89 rebates so far this year, compared with 12 in 2015.)
Falling prices for solar panels as well as the fact that Oncor lowered its rebate rate, prompting some consumers to jump in rather than wait, has caused the surge in demand, said Oncor spokesman Jeamy Molina. Last year, Oncor paid $1 per DC watt installed; this year, to help expand the number of homeowners who could participate, the company dropped the rebate to 85 cents per watt.
Another factor driving demand, is that the DFW area has become a more mature solar market with more installers than ever, making it easier for homeowners to make this upgrade, Molina said.
Despite the surge in demand, Oncor’s rebates this year will be limited, as always, by a finite pool of rebate dollars. This year the company has set aside $4.4 million for the program, enough to supplement 750 to 850 residential solar projects, Molina said. Oncor expects its solar rebates to continue, though the company is issuing no guidance on the future. The rebates help fulfill a mandate from the Public Utility Commission that power companies support the growth of solar power, which helps lower energy demand thereby strengthening the power grid.
“Right now we’re already about two-thirds of the way through the (2016) budget,” Molina said, noting that Oncor anticipates that soon many homeowners will not wait for a local rebate, but will install PV panels because the price is reasonable. Homeowners also will be able to access the federal tax deduction, which allows for taxpayers to deduct 30 percent of the cost of rooftop solar through 2019, after which the incentive will be phased out.
To put this all in perspective, Oncor serves about 10 million consumers in 400 communities in its two regions of Texas. So the number of residents with or planning to add solar rooftops remains small.
Many homeowners still don’t have the upfront costs for solar systems, even though they’ve come down significantly. Solar leasing programs may work for these homeowners by offering panels without any financial outlay; but such projects are just beginning to take hold in Texas.
Electricity provider TXU Power offers a no-fuss program in which the homeowner simply sits back and TXU takes care of all the details, from planning to installation. The customer, however, does get paid for the excess energy their panels feed back to the grid. Reliant Energy is the other large DFW-area electricity provider with a solar “buy back” program in which customers who install solar panels can get paid for the energy they produce that exceeds what they use, in other words, their contribution to the electricity grid.
Chart shows that Tarrant County leads the DFW area in solar installations. Courtesy of Jay Squyres.
Despite these programs, Texas remains a thornier state in which to go solar, because the legislature has not enacted a state law requiring electricity companies to pay back homeowners for the excess electricity they send back to the grid. Most states do have such “net-metering” laws, though these policies are in flux in several states because how much utilities should pay for solar has become a hot topic as more residences and businesses add rooftop installations. In some states, utilities are trying to limit the payback to wholesale prices (instead of retail) or add monthly fees, arguing that solar owners should pay for the extra bookkeeping of hooking up to the grid.
With net metering being voluntary in Texas, only Austin Energy and CPS Energy in San Antonio, along with a handful of power providers, have committed to paying solar owners for their energy.
Most advocates agree that’s left sunny Texas with fewer solar rooftops than might have been.
In the DFW area, customers of Green Mountain Energy, TXU and Reliant can get compensated for their excess solar power, but other power providers do not have such programs; and there’s no guarantee such offers will continue.
Texas’ track record, though, does show that solar rooftops gain purchase where homeowners find friendlier policies.
For example, in Austin, where Austin Energy offers net metering and has been encouraging solar since 2004, the company has issued rebates to 4,700 residential solar owners. That’s more than the cumulative number of solar rooftops of 3,255 in all of Dallas and Tarrant counties.
“Austin has always looked to diversify its economy beyond government and hi-tech. It is a leader in clean energy innovation,” says Austin Energy spokesman Carlos Cordova.
The city has kept up the growth by also expanding into commercial solar and setting goals for renewables, aiming to reach 200 megawatts of solar power by 2025.
Such commitments can empower residential and businesses by offering assurances that incentives, albeit declining ones, will continue to help offset investment costs and signaling that solar is viewed in a positive light.
Jay Squyres cleverly refers to the excess energy he sends back to the grid as energy he provides to “the community” or “his neighbors,” which is his way of emphasizing that residential solar power is a greater good. It assists the grid on high-demand days (the top of the Texas summer), improving the grid’s resilience.
And like that other green invention, the shade tree, the most effective solar power is the one you installed yesterday.
Squyres green situation is enough to make one green with envy. His electricity bills net out a few hundred dollars in his favor and he long ago recovered his initial investment on his solar panels. In fact, he says he earned back his outlay with saved electricity costs after just one year. This was possible because of the richer early rebates of up to $5 per watt. Today, as rebates have declined, the return on investment is typically longer, in the range of 10 years, according to Cordova.
But it wasn’t just a matter of economics for the Squyres family. Jay explains that his children have suffered from asthma and for that reason, he simply doesn’t see the point in waiting to clear carbon pollution from the skies.
“I wanted cleaner air and that (solar) is the quickest way to start to do that,” he says. “And I want to reduce our reliance on foreign oil. And when I got into it I found it wasn’t as expensive as I thought. It is expensive but when you get a rebate and a tax credit, it not as expensive as you think.”