What does the next chapter of energy efficiency look like for Austin?

by Kamaria Greenfield, BCAP

When Texans look to their state capital, they see a diverse and sprawling metropolis of just under a million people, a vibrant cultural and economic hub, and a downtown skyline undergoing rapid transformation. Less visible is the city’s long and continued commitment to the energy efficiency of its built environment. Austin stands as a fine example of how a city can go beyond minimum statewide requirements to give its residents a better, greener future. In addition to adopting strong energy codes, the city has also taken a significant interest in renewable energy, including solar.

To support cities like Austin as they harness the power of the sun, the Building Codes Assistance Project (BCAP) and the Center for Sustainable Energy (CSE) have developed a new in-depth solar photovoltaic (PV) training course for design professionals. This work is part of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) SunShot Initiative.

The SunShot Initiative is a collaborative national effort that drives innovation to make solar PV energy fully cost competitive with traditional energy sources before the end of the decade. Within SunShot, the Solar Training and Education for Professionals (STEP) program specifically tackles soft cost barriers to solar deployment by providing education to key stakeholders in the transactional process: designers, builders, lenders, regulators, etc. BCAP’s role focuses on the leadership and business opportunities for architects and engineers in incorporating solar PV into all projects.

A track record of environmental concern and smart energy usage

Austin’s dedication to energy efficiency dates back to the 1990s, when the city created the first green building program in the United States. As of 2013, the Austin Energy Green Building program had rated more than 10,000 homes and 15,000,000 square feet of commercial space.

In September 2016, Austin updated its energy code to the 2015 IECC with local amendments. This iteration of the national model code includes an Energy Rating Index (ERI) compliance path, where homes can meet code by hitting a target HERS score. After ensuring efficiency in the building envelope, many builders choose to add solar panels to their homes, further cutting emissions and reducing homeowners’ utility bills. In the summer of 2015, the city council gave final approval to Austin’s Community Climate Plan, which set the ambitious but attainable goal of reaching community-wide net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Several stakeholders – including the Office of Sustainability and Austin Energy – have identified energy-related emissions as the leading emissions source and are calculating the best way to reach the interim reduction goal in 2020. One of their key strategies: Increasing the deployment of renewables, including solar.

Austin is the fastest-growing metro area in Texas – how many homes and businesses in the area could benefit from integrating solar into their designs? How many tons of greenhouse gas emissions could be averted between now and 2050 through the widespread deployment of renewable energy technologies?

Preaching to the choir

Many Austinites don’t need to be convinced of solar’s benefits because they’ve already witnessed them firsthand. Solar Austin, a nonprofit organization and a chapter of the Texas Solar Energy Society, has published a series of success story videos to highlight the positive impacts of going solar.

“I don’t know how to pump gas anymore,” a homeowner jokes in one video. “And that’s fine.” She and her husband, who live in West Austin with their children, use the energy generated by their rooftop solar panels to power their appliances and also to charge their electric car. The couple estimates that they’ve cut their electricity costs in half. Although Texas’s current state-level net metering policy leaves much to be desired, utilities in Austin and other major cities have forged ahead. Austin Energy, for example, charges its customers the normal residential rate per kilowatt hour but also credits solar production at the current Value of Solar Rate (see graphic below, originally posted by EnergySage).

A perfect opportunity for solar

Austin has a lot working in its favor: modern building energy codes, a city council with a clear vision for an energy efficient future, utilities working to encourage their customers to be early solar adopters, more than 100 solar companies in the greater metro area, and many residents who see the financial and environmental advantages of clean energy. With the addition of this in-depth training for design professionals, BCAP hopes that Austin will continue to provide efficiency inspiration for other Lone Star cities for years to come.

Join us in Austin on January 24th to STEP into the Sun.


Austin skyline photo credit: User:Argash [GFDL or CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons