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Solar Power Shines In San Antonio As Texas Green Movement Gains Momentum

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Al Ritter's power bill was pretty high this month. But not as high as it might have been.

Ritter, a retired Air Force electrical engineer, lives in San Antonio -- a city hit hard by the great Texas drought of 2011, the worst in the state's history. Temperatures have regularly topped 100 this summer, and the earth is baking. In the Ritters' front yard, the cedar elm, starved for water, is losing its leaves several months ahead of schedule.

Like everyone else in town, Al and his wife have had the air conditioning working overtime.

"I expected I would've had a bill that was over $300 for the month for electric power," Ritter told The Huffington Post.

Instead, he said, his most recent bill came to $252 -- a savings he attributes to the array of 24 solar panels the Ritters had installed on their roof in August.

The Ritters aren't the only ones going solar in San Antonio. In the past year, more than 150 homes have been outfitted with solar panels, and over 1,000 people have applied to a local nonprofit program that connects homeowners with companies that perform solar installations.

That program, known as Solar San Antonio, was founded by Bill Sinkin -- a former salesman, a community leader, a violinist with the San Antonio symphony and an early champion of racial integration in Texas. Sinkin celebrated his 98th birthday this year, and among the San Antonio business community he is regarded as something of an apostle for solar power.

"Back in 1999, my father started this organization," said Bill's son Lanny, who serves as executive director for Solar San Antonio. "He basically pioneered the whole solar thing here, because very few people in San Antonio knew anything about solar."

That has changed. In 2009, a survey by the Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory found that almost 40 percent of the city was interested in using solar power. In a city of 1.3 million, that's about 400,000 potential solar customers.

The solar surge in San Antonio is only one part of the Lone Star State's powerful green movement. While Texas may be best known as a state rich in fossil fuels, some of the most ambitious renewable-energy work in the country is happening there. Texas generates more electricity from wind power than any other state, and the federal government has invested millions in local geothermal energy research.

And solar power, according to those involved, is the state's next big growth industry.

"We might be an oil state and a natural gas state, but we're going solar," said Shelby Ruff, vice president of residential sales at the Texas-based contractor Solar Community. "Solar power's the most abundant thing on earth, and oil and gas are finite."

'EVERYBODY'S FOR IT'

Before Bill Sinkin was the chairman of Solar San Antonio -- before he decided to spread the good word about solar power to a city almost entirely indifferent to it -- he was taking on other little-loved causes.

In the late '40s and early '50s, Sinkin served as chair of the San Antonio Housing Authority, where his push to expand public housing for poor families got him on the mayor's bad side. Later, in 1967, he bought control of the Texas State Bank and made it clear that TSB would be an institution that served, and employed, both blacks and whites -- a principled stance that cost him some customers.

And it was at the Texas State Bank where, in 1982, Sinkin and his colleagues installed a solar system on the roof, largely to see whether it would work.

"We were not highly trained people," Sinkin told The Huffington Post. They knew that solar power was environmentally friendly and that it might save them some money. Beyond that, it was something of an experiment.

Today -- more or less as a result of Sinkin's enthusiasm for solar -- homeowners are finding their way to Solar San Antonio through word of mouth.

As demand grows for photovoltaic panels and sun-powered water heaters, solar companies are expanding their local operations and bringing jobs to the area.

A 14-megawatt solar farm went online in November, and plans are underway for a massive 400-megawatt plant, one that could power 80,000 homes.

Such a facility would be more than four times as large as the biggest solar plant currently in existence, and while it's only in the proposal stages right now, it's expected to be a major employer once it gets off the ground.

Sinkin's advocacy efforts -- the lunches and seminars he held for years to educate San Antonians about the possibilities of solar -- are what got this all underway. Local institutions have lined up behind him, from the mayor's office to the Chamber of Commerce to CPS Energy, San Antonio's municipally-owned utility, which has put solar at the center of its agenda.

"All of the political and economic leadership of the city is on the same page," Lanny Sinkin told the Huffington Post. "Everybody's for it."

It seems fair to say that the elder Sinkin's experiment has been a success.

"I'm very proud of what's happening," Bill said. "There's nothing like it in the country."

'READ BETWEEN THE LINES'

The city of San Antonio may be united in its desire for solar power, but beyond the city limits, the consensus is less clear.

"We don't have state support," said Lanny Sinkin. "We have seen some very good legislation that would have really propelled Texas to the forefront on solar simply just not make it out of the legislative session."

One possible reason for the lack of momentum at the state level, he says, is that Texas has faced a major budget shortfall in recent years, and legislators have been occupied with sorting it out.

But, he says, "I wouldn't be surprised if in the back rooms, the oil and gas and coal lobbies are making their voices heard and are not that anxious to see solar expand rapidly."

Energy is a big tent in Texas, and while the state is home to both robust fossil-fuel concerns and ambitious renewable projects, that doesn't mean the old industries and the new are completely in conflict.

Among oil and gas companies, the opposition to green energy is "not monolithic," according to Russel Smith, executive director of the Texas Renewable Energy Industries Association. Some oil companies, Smith said, are interested in collaborating with sustainable-energy groups.

But sometimes, he said, "you can read between the lines of what happens" when a renewable bill fails in the state legislature -- such as when State Representative Drew Darby's proposal to create a statewide rebate for solar projects stalled out in committee this past spring.

"You start to figure there's a hand back there," said Smith.

Still, despite the push-and-pull of different energy interests -- and the mixed record of governor and Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry, who has done much for the state's wind-power industry but for whom, as Lanny Sinkin puts it, "solar is not a big item" -- the Texas green movement is not expected to reverse course, as long as passions remain strong at the municipal level.

"Renewable energy is in its infancy, but I do think the sky is the limit," said Richard Perez, president and CEO of the Greater San Antonio Chamber of Commerce.

San Antonio's city fathers, including Mayor Julian Castro, see a strong link between green energy and economic growth, said Perez.

Five green businesses -- including an LED lighting company and an electric refrigerated-vehicle manufacturer -- are poised to partner with CPS, the city's utility company, and create more than 200 jobs for the city within the next few years.

"I am very, very confident of our success," said Perez.

As for Al Ritter, who had panels installed on his house this summer, solar power hasn't proven a cure-all: the savings from his roof array only come out to about two dollars a day.

"This is more environmentally good than it is otherwise good," he said. "Nobody's getting rich on this, that's for sure."

Still, from a conservation standpoint, he said, "it's probably the best thing I've ever done."

And from what Ritter hears, the number of solar-curious San Antonians is growing all the time.

"Most of the builders in town are offering a solar option," he said. "Everybody's got work lined up like they can't believe."

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