By Bill Oakey – May 10, 2022
CNN recently published an article that provides a climate change and affordability solution that is perfect for Austin. Big-box stores are starting to install solar panels on their rooftops and portions of their giant parking lots. IKEA has already taken an early lead in this endeavor, with 54 solar installations, covering 90% of their stores nationwide. The cost savings and climate change benefits that could be achieved if more stores did this are enormous. Check out these points, summarizing CNN’s findings:
1. From September to December 2020, IKEA cut its energy purchases by 84% and slashed its energy costs by 57% at their Baltimore store. Meanwhile, the cars in their parking lot stayed cooler in the shade provided by the solar panels.
2. A report from the nonprofit Environment America estimates that solar panels could cut the electricity needed by big-box stores and shopping centers by 50%.
3. The same report found that if big-box stores nationwide installed solar panels, it would generate enough electricity to power 8 million average homes. The climate change impact would be equivalent to pulling 11.3 million gas-powered cars off the road.
4. The average Walmart has 180,000 square feet of rooftop. That’s equal to 3 football fields of space. It’s enough for solar panels to generate the electricity needed to power 200 homes.
Three Words Come to Mind for Austin – Let’s Do It!
This initiative will require a coordinated effort from both public and private sector officials. There are some hurdles and strategic planning efforts that will come into play. In Austin, we may have permitting and other regulatory requirements. These could be reviewed and possibly adjusted to encourage the installations. The CNN study found that some big box stores have roofs that may need repairs or modifications to accommodate solar panels. The City Council should consider appointing a task force to engage the stakeholders, evaluate the situation and make recommendations on how best to move forward.
IKEA installed solar panels at its Round Rock store in 2012. Just imagine how much the technology has improved since then. What are we waiting for?
Austin Energy Would Need to Rethink Its Future Plans
A sudden large-scale shift to solar panels would impact Austin Energy’s ability to sell enough electricity to keep their operations financially viable. But, more solar installations are coming online already, some of which include entire residential subdivisions. Some serious discussions need to be held, regardless of this proposal. Part of Austin Energy’s reason for their pending rate increase is related to lower sales to customers in new, energy-efficient homes.
Here Are Some Things That Our City Officials Can Do
1. Explore whether Austin Energy can legally sell power directly to other utilities, and / or offer it for sale on the Texas power grid.
2. Do a detailed study on the impact of scaling up rooftop solar installations, and chart a path to gradually accommodate it. This can include reducing power generation from other sources, and rethinking Austin Energy’s future power generation plans. Another critical aspect would be evaluating the optimal mix of base load vs. peaking power capacity. This will ensure that we always have enough power to meet the demand during periods without a lot of sunshine.
3. Reach out to other major cities and large utilities, to determine best practices for a smooth transition toward large-scale solar installations.
4. Explore options to use available Federal funds for expanding solar infrastructure. Contact members of our Congressional delegation to seek assistance under both existing and potential new legislation.
5. This opportunity is hiding in plain sight – Put a solar installation on the roof of our massively expanded Austin Convention Center (!)
Let’s Not Forget About Rapidly Evolving Battery Storage Technology
This is the icing on the cake. Elon Musk and others are already manufacturing and selling new models of home and industrial battery installations to store solar power. These are following the path of solar panels, in rapidly becoming more affordable and of higher quality. City, State and Federal officials should review the excellent 2018 U.T. Honors Program thesis by my good friend, Maddie Bratcher. The title is “Gridlock on the Power Grid: How Battery Storage Technology Reveals Challenges to the Lone Star State.”
The future is now for both large-scale solar and battery storage. To quote an old fashioned saying, the train is roaring down the track. Austin needs to either hop on that train, or get out of the way. My advice is to move to the front of the train and lead the way!