Utility plans for community solar farm in East Austin

7:40 p.m Thursday, July 10, 2014 Local

A half-mile from Springdale Road in East Austin is a tucked-away, 26-acre lot owned by the city. It’s home to waist-high grass, scrub brush and an assortment of trees, and — some neighbors suspect — has also become a spot for illegal activity.

Austin Energy is considering a new project that would dramatically transform this land. The utility wants to turn this patch of grass and dirt into an energy source, building its first-ever community solar farm there.

“This is a great way to make use of what would otherwise be marginal land,” said Danielle Murray, the manager of solar energy services for Austin Energy. It’s not attractive for developers because it’s near a railroad track and an electrical sub-station.

The utility began soliciting bids last spring to build the four-megawatt plant, which is enough to power 500 homes. A final bidder will be picked in a month or two, Murray said, but the project still needs the City Council’s blessing.

A community solar farm, also known as a “shared renewable” project, is geared toward people who aren’t able to add solar panels to their homes. This might be because they are renters, or their home isn’t hospitable to solar panels.

It’s not a new concept, with at least 52 other projects like this in 17 states, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association. Murray said “there’s a lot of demand” for it in Austin. Though Austin Energy has signed contracts for large solar energy farms in West Texas — and already buys solar energy from a farm in Webberville, east of Austin — this will be its first smaller-scale project within the city limits.

Community solar often works on a subscription system. Participants buy a certain amount of solar-generated kilowatts every month as part of their electric bill. But Austin subscribers won’t actually be guaranteed they are using the solar-generated electricity from this farm.

Instead, the solar power will be funneled into a statewide grid and used by Austin Energy and other utilities.

Still, this project may be appealing because users will help pay for and support the growth of solar energy, satisfying environmentalists and clean energy supporters. Also, their rates could be cheaper than regular ratepayers.

The lot was picked because it is near a substation and the city already owns the land, Murray said, which allows planners to move more quickly from concept to shovels. But it hasn’t gone unnoticed that nearby homeowners are pleased with their new neighbors.

Improving safety “is a great upside,” Murray said. “It would include fencing.”

Mary Gonzales, who has lived a block away from the vacant land for decades, said she’s watched people — drug dealers, she assumes — drive on to the land to do their business.

“It wasn’t always as bad as it is now,” she said. A solar farm will probably keep criminals away, Gonzales said.

Though she’s a big fan of her new potential neighbors, Gonzales will never be able to use the farm herself. That’s because she just installed solar panels on her roof. For once, she said, she’s excited about getting her energy bill.