Well, I finally found a solar energy contractor here in Lubbock, or more accurately, he found me by way of an older blog post. Cris Been, President of Therma Breeze, Inc. (806-763-7777 for all your solar panel installation needs!) was kind enough to answer some interview questions via email, which I reproduce below, unedited except for my emphasis in boldface.
Without further ado:
Tell us a little bit about your business as a solar contractor and what it is like in Lubbock.
I first started out as an installer back in the mid eighties for a solar hot water company in Oklahoma. After the industry slowed down, I went into HVAC, Plumbing, and Refrigeration. A couple of years ago, I was wanting to open my own business and solar energy was the most fun I’ve had at any job, so I started Therma Breeze, Inc. Putting solar on a few pools in West Texas got me started, then we did some domestic hot water jobs, then came the solar electricity jobs. I am a licensed electrical contractor, however, I don’t do anything besides solar electrical installations. I got my initial shock of trying to put solar electricity panels on a home in Lubbock who was an LP&L customer. LP&L will not allow solar or wind generation customers - period. (Unless, of course, you are wanting to put up a megawatt wind turbine. In that case, EXCEPTIONS can somehow be made. But if you are a residential customer, you can forget it!) Being a municipality, they have managed to find loopholes in current laws and are not forced to participate in allowing renewable energy distribution on any of their lines. Even if they did, they don’t have “net metering” which is how other utilities pay you back for any excess energy you put into the grid. They claim their contract with Xcel forbids them to get energy from any other source than Xcel. After speaking with Xcel, both parties seem to agree on this point. For those of you who are aware that LP&L is in the process of buying out all of Xcel’s customers in the city of Lubbock: The answer is: “Yes, that means no one in the city of Lubbock will be able to have wind or solar on their homes or businesses at least until 2019 when the contract is up for renewal between Xcel and LP&L.” However, if you are not in the city limits and you have Xcel, they will allow renewable energy generation. SPEC is fantastic to work with. They have the best policy for renewable customers and even welcome it. If you are in an area where you can switch to SPEC, you should.
Who are your competitors in Lubbock and around the region?
The only “competitor” would be RD Electric. I say that because they have solar panels and wind turbines on their vans. Every time I pull a permit in the Lubbock permit office, I’m sure to check to see if any other solar or wind permits have been pulled. So far, I’m the only one to do so. They may be working outside the city - which is understandable - but so far I’m the only contractor with permitted installations in Lubbock. I think that they are primarily an electrical contractor who can also do renewable energy work while I am just the opposite. Around the region there are more solar contractors. The bulk of solar contractors are in Austin, Dallas/Ft.Worth, San Antonio, and Houston. It is by no coincidence that these cities offer incentives for going with renewable energy, making it more affordable. In West Texas, we have no such incentives other than in Midland/Odessa where Oncor offers incentives up to $2.25/watt rebate for any new residential system. Couple that with the 30% tax incentive, and you’ve got a great system that will pay for itself in less than 10 years while giving you thirty, forty, even fifty years of clean energy - all from the sun. Oh, and I have financing available with good terms and a decent rate! Why not spend the money towards owning your own equipment instead of renting it from the utility company? You can find out more about it by visiting my website at www.thermabreeze.net.
What challenges have you faced with your business? What successes have you had?
Well, the challenges have mostly been with utility companies. Besides that, I would say that the biggest challenge has been to change the minds and hearts of the citizens in West Texas. We are so used to just “flipping on the switch and paying the bill” every month around here because it’s what we’ve always done. There is a better and smarter way to get our energy and the source is infinite - the sun and the wind. Finite resources are just that, and when they’re gone - they’re gone. We can do better, and we should. Successes for me so far have been the few people who see this big picture and are taking advantage of it. There are a couple of SPEC customers that now have 100% solar on their homes and they’re loving it! How about getting your electricity bill and actually looking forward to opening it? That’s because they will never have an electricity bill again (as long as they live in the home). Schools are also becoming aware of green technology and are taking advantage of it. I have installed solar water heating on schools in West Texas and they are saving an unbelievable amount of money by not using gas for heating their water, and it works great. Success for me is installing the technology and watching it work. For me, there’s just no feeling in the world that equals that.
Suppose I own a house inside the Lubbock city limits, and I’m interested in powering what I can through solar and wind. What do I need to do? Are there limitations to what I can do?
First thing is to move to a location where SPEC can be your utility provider! If you have read the previous questions and answers, you know what challenges Lubbock faces for using wind and solar.
There are large-scale successes of green energy in our region, such as wind farms around Sweetwater, the American Wind Power Center, and the LCU campus. What other large or small scale green energy success stories are there in our region?
Our region is one of the best in the U.S. for both wind and solar. I’m not as big of a fan of huge wind farms because of the nature of the energy they generate. It puts a huge load on our grid, which unfortunately wasn’t designed to handle the big up and down swings of voltage that a large group of turbines can generate. I do like what wind can do for the homeowner, business owner, manufacturing facility, or school. Solar energy, on the other hand, works best when the utility companies need help the most - during daylight hours when most of it’s customers are cranking up their air conditioners trying to stay cool. By offsetting this load with solar energy, we can help reduce the possibility of blackouts or brownouts. The utility company also has the opportunity to sign up more customers because there is more energy to go around. Solar is also more stable and consistent when it delivers energy, which is better for the health and sustainability of the grid in the long term.
What can ordinary citizens of Lubbock and the surrounding area do to advance the production of clean energy?
Protest! Make your voices heard! I have contacted the city council and they run when they see me coming. The citizens of Lubbock had one chance to stop this takeover in the courts and it is most likely too late to stop the legal process now. We can hope that the State of Texas will pass laws in the next session that will override the agreements between Xcel and LP&L. There was some really good legislation that simply did not make it to the floor for a vote in time before the last session ended. Don’t believe anything you hear from LP&L regarding this issue. They use the contract with Xcel as an excuse to not allow their customers to generate their own energy, and that’s sad. I simply don’t have the time or the resources to take on this challenge by myself. If the citizens of Lubbock would make a strong voice on this issue, perhaps we can make the utilities listen to us, their customers.
Incidentally, Cris will be speaking this Wednesday at an industry seminar titled: “The Solar Energy Course for Architects, Engineers, and Contractors” It’s $259.00 to attend, and you can contact Cris for details.
He has also said that he will check the discussion thread for any comments or questions that readers may have for him over the next few days, so ask away.
Thanks again to Cris for giving a wonderful interview!