The amount of solar power Dallas can generate has increased by more than one-third in the past year but still lags far behind San Antonio, Austin and most large cities nationwide, according to new data from Environment Texas Research and Policy Center.
Dallas’ capacity jumped from 12 megawatts in 2016 to 16.4 megawatts last year. That pales in comparison with San Antonio (161 megawatts) and Austin (39 megawatts).
Despite its sunny climate, Dallas finished 44th in per capita solar capacity on a list of 68 large U.S. cities. Even famously rainy Seattle and frequently frozen Buffalo did better than Dallas.
For Texas bragging rights, the city can boast that it finished way ahead of No. 58 Houston.
The list wasn’t predictable. Sunny cities didn’t always fare well, and places with longer, darker winters didn’t always trail.
Honolulu unsurprisingly topped the list with nearly three times the per capita capacity of No. 2 San Diego. And Indianapolis finished fourth, a couple of spots ahead of Las Vegas.
The bottom two places went to Birmingham, Ala., and Virginia Beach, Va. Both have roughly the same number of sunny days (58 and 60 percent respectively) as San Antonio, according to the National Climatic Data Center.
Luke Metzger, executive director of Environment Texas, said several factors figure into the discrepancies, including ownership of the utilities and government commitment to solar. He said California is the nation’s leader thanks in part to the state’s Million Solar Roofs plan from a decade ago.
"They had clear direction from the state," Metzger said about California. "We’ve lacked that kind of support."
Texas does not mandate net metering, a program in which utilities must buy back excess electricity generated by customers’ solar panels. Texas legislators did set renewable energy goals that helped drive the state’s wind energy revolution, but those goals ended a dozen years ago.
Also, Metzger said differences in electricity markets have created an in-state solar split in Texas.
Austin and San Antonio both have city-owned utilities that have advocated for solar. Those utilities generate, distribute and sell the electricity to its customers. They also provide additional financial incentives, including greater upfront money for solar installations and the equivalent of net metering.
"They have that public accountability in terms of generating the kinds of energy people want and also then do more long-term planning," Metzger said.
Dallas, however, is part of the competitive electricity market where the different roles — generation, distribution and sale — are handled by different companies. Local consumers sign up for a retail electricity provider, which buys electricity in the competitive market. That electricity is then distributed via power lines owned by Oncor.
Geoff Bailey, a spokesman for Oncor, said electricity prices in Texas’ competitive market are probably a factor in the solar numbers.
"The ERCOT market is different," he said. "With the low price of power, it’s [solar] not always cost effective for a lot of customers."
Bailey said homeowners who shop around can find plans that charge 3 to 5 cents per kilowatt hour, which is extremely low. Overall, Texas has the ninth lowest average retail electricity prices, according to the federal Energy Information Administration.
El Paso was too small to make the Environment Texas solar list, but it also has a high solar capacity when adjusted for its population. El Paso isn’t a part of the competitive market and has an investor-owned, rather than city-owned, electric utility.
But Metzger said that since El Paso Electric is vertically integrated with generation, retail and transmission responsibilities, it has more in common with city-owned utilities.
Austin Energy, San Antonio’s CPS Energy and El Paso Electric also have versions of net metering that pay customers for excess solar electricity generated. In Dallas, Houston and other competitive cities, customers have to find a retail electricity provider that will buy back some of that electricity.
The upfront incentives have also varied greatly. For 2018, Oncor set aside $4 million in solar incentives for its service area, which covers much of North Texas and parts of West Texas. About half the money goes to residential solar and half to business.
In San Antonio, CPS has a solar incentive budget of $15 million with about one quarter of the number of customers as Oncor. Austin Energy has $7.5 million budgeted and about 475,000 customers.
CenterPoint Energy, which owns and operates power lines in Houston and the surrounding area, does not offer solar incentives.