Energy and Environment Reporting for Texas

How One Austin Church Could Lead to More Urban Solar Power

Solar Panel Array

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The promise of harnessing the power of the sun and turning it into renewable energy has attracted countless businesses, governments and environmental groups. But it might be a church here in Austin that ends up bringing one of the next breakthroughs in solar technology.

To understand the scope of this project, it helps to know that Saint David’s is no little roadside chapel. The Episcopal Church in downtown Austin fills up a whole city block. It provides your typical church services and then some.

“We have a coffee shop, we have a restaurant, we have a pre-school for children,” says Terry Nathan, the parish administrator. “The better part of our basement is dedicated to a homeless center.” The Church keeps a staff of caterers for its side business hosting events, and has a bookstore and parking garage, which they make available for commercial use. All that takes a lot of electricity.

So about ten years ago, church members got the idea to put solar panels on the parking garage. But they didn’t take the plunge until last year. That’s when low interest rates, improved technology, and government rebates all came together.

“We had a window of opportunity that actually let us create a rather significant solar project,” says Nathan. And they were in Austin, probably one of the most progressive, solar-friendly cities in Texas.

So Nathan felt a little shock when people at the city-owned electric utility told him the project was not allowed. “I brought the Austin Energy people together and said ‘What can we do?’ And basically they said, ‘Not much,’” remembers Nathan.

The problem? The church’s proposal was too big, with solar production of around 150 kilowatts. In the end, church allies at City Hall convinced Austin Energy not to pull the plug. But that took some tricky engineering.

It goes back to the way cities set up electric grids in downtown areas, says Clayton Stice, a power engineer with Austin Energy in the system engineering group. Stice says downtown networks are often separated from the rest of the city, to ensure extra protection for densely-populated, commercially-important parts of town.

“The issue this causes is that, for safety, the system is designed so that power can only flow to the customer,” Stice says. “So if there is any back-feeding power, the circuit trips and opens up and cuts off power to that facility.”

The Saint David’s solar plan was so big that on days when there’s plenty of sun, but not much need for AC, it could create more electricity than the church needs. That would send electricity back to the grid, where it would register as a malfunction. It could not only cut off power to the building, but over time damage equipment, putting the downtown network at risk.

“Other cities have tried putting these larger solar systems in effect and those systems are all sized to be smaller than the annual minimum load,” Stice says. “This is unique in that’s its much larger than the annual minimum load.”

The fix was to create a system that will decrease the amount of electricity produced during those days when the panels make more energy than the church needs.

Bennet Ford, an engineer on the project with contractor Meridian Solar, says it was the first time he’s worked to reduce a project’s capacity. “You never like to curtail a solar system that’s free energy from the sun and it’s not going to be used here on site,” Ford says.

But with these new controls in place, the project could move forward. On a recent day, Ford watched as cranes took positions at the church. He says if all goes well, the project can serve as an example not just for other buildings in downtown Austin, but in other cities.

“We’re trying to lead the way and show other utilities, we in partnership with Austin Energy, how this can be done,” Ford says.

Austin Energy says it is already getting calls from other cities. But the utility urges patience. It will take at least a couple years of monitoring Saint David’s solar power installation before the city has a clear sense of how well the system works from a technical and economic standpoint.


  • Brad Sloan

    From the story, it sound like Austin Energy doesn’t want competition cutting into their revenue stream. I see big power companies fighting solar power every step of the way unless they are providing it. Sound like no selling electricity back to the power company. St. Davids should look into battery storage if it not too expensive and get off the grid completely.

  • Steve Svensson

    Greedy power companies like the monopoly they have. Solar intrudes on that monopoly. Don’t buy into the lies. As a 25 yr electrician, I can tell you the system can handle the excess input, but the pockets of the money changers can’t

  • HCS

    It seems odd to decrease capacity. Surely there is a way to use redirect the surplus energy even if only to store it in batteries for later use or to heat water or any number of things. Is there something missing from this story?

  • It’s a tall building… Too bad they’re not pumping the water up to a tank and then generating power on dark days that way. I’d also say that promoting the use of electric cars (and free charging at the church) to parishioners who live and/or work downtown could absorb a bunch of power too! :-)

    • Heidi Noel Eichman-Trevithick

      Just to add to that note, it’s the city that gets the revenues from the charging stations and not the church.

  • FK46

    Before you get too upset with the greedy capitalist power company … Austin Energy is OWNED by the City of Austin. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Austin_Energy. Maybe, just maybe, the progressive City of Austin is protecting its revenues.

  • BSargent

    St. David’s does, in fact, provide charging stations for electric cars in its parking garage……

  • Frank S

    Since the city’s grid is the problem, it doesn’t make much sense to decrease the efficiency of an already inefficient generation method. Why doesn’t the city allow St David’s to construct their grid on the rooftop of a non-downtown city-owned structure, meter the output, and give St David’s a credit the following month? Seems like a better solution than throttling the solar grid.

  • Chris Mason

    In the Caribbean islands, we are not given credit for exported power, so we build systems for commercial customers by profiling the customer’s power usage then building systems to supply about 80% of the load at midday.

  • Andrew Engroff

    Yet another argument for updating the incredibly outdated power grid we have nationwide. Yes, I realize that’s a huge expenditure, but it would create jobs too. Plus it needs to be done so that we can leverage green energy.

  • PaulFelixSchott

    Albert Einstein won the
    Nobel Prize for what? When Government leaders asked him to go on stage. To
    address the Scientific Community and the World. About what he was given the
    Nobel Prize for. When Albert Einstein Had done so. He addressed them with his
    other accomplishments. For years most Governments did not have a ear for
    Einstein’s Dream.

    Archimedes around 250 B.C. was know most of the World over as a great
    Mathematician. One of the first Scientist and Inventor of many things. Even
    the first Laser Ray from the Sun’s Energy. Science Fiction is what you would
    have though you were seeing if you could go back in time, it was real. To day
    we call it The LASER, Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission. Back then it
    was just called Amplification of the SUN, Archimedes Death Ray.

    Thousand of years later it would be a Laser. That Albert Einstein help
    make possible. That would unlock one of the first books on Earth.
    The METHOD written by Archimedes. Then over more than 250 years later. When
    well Faded was cut from a scroll and put into a book form, the first book to be easier to
    hide from the Romans by St. Paul. This book sold for over 2 million dollars.
    In New york at Christie’s Auction House.

    These two are at the top of the list of the World’s Greatest Scientists,
    Viewed by Scientist around the World.

    Sad that for the last 25 years or so of every teacher asked no matter what
    Grade k through 16. At least 80% of them did not know Archimedes. Even sadder 90%
    of them could not tell you what one of the most Brilliant Scientist to ever
    live on Earth. Won the Nobel Prize for.

    It was for the work Albert Einstein did to show the World it could get
    Free Energy, Electric from the SUN. (THE PHOTOVOLTAIC EFFECT).

    You ask this question to any Military general 95% of them will get it right.
    Even more surprising 99% of them will know more about Archimedes then most
    Teachers on Earth. Generals know Energy is the key to Winning.

    At almost one thousand to one Archimedes always won against what all knew was
    impossible odds. Archimedes home town city of Syracuse was victorious against the
    greatest Kingdoms Armies on earth many times. Syracuse once was one of the most
    powerful cities in the World.

    I can only ask you to please look into Solar Energy, Solar Power, Solar Panels
    and Solar array on the internet under Images. To see and explore for your self
    then you be the JURY.

    More then 10 years ago the Internet became most of the World’s Universities
    Learning Platform. A Modern Day Archimedes Resource Center.

    The Solar Energy Industry in the year 2010 and 2011 has leaped ahead farther and
    faster then any other industry on Earth, and is still going stronger then any
    other Industry on Earth in 2012 into 2013. The Solar Industry in the
    United States of America alone, has grown by more than 50% in 2010 and
    that number has gone up even higher for the 2011 year and is still going up every year.

    The strong benefits of Solar Energy is Clear Clean Air viewed in major cities
    as improving air quality. Clean Cities. By all that use their brain for good .
    View it as protecting the environment and Freedom from OIL , Coal and other Dirty Energy.

    While many Governments has eased the Taxes on Renewable Energy . Some cities in
    the states that these Legislators come from have
    worked against these tax credits.

    By doing so they are showing their true objectives. That they have stock in some
    power plants and do not want to lose all that Money they have been taking out of
    your pocket books for too many years. By taxing you on your Energy Bills. They want
    to Control Power and Tax Everything they can. Not let People be free to get their
    own power from the top of their own roofs.

    By adding their own taxes to them. These wicked leaders think that this will take
    away the incentives to harvest the Free Energy from the Sun.

    The Public ability and awareness for all on Earth to use the Natural Solar Energy,
    is Contributing to Production of Solar Energy Products. Making the Solar
    Energy Industry the fastest growing on Earth. A Wealth of Free Energy From The SUN.

    The more the wicked try to slow the Solar Energy Industry down, it only Enhances
    involvement and the efforts of the Good at Heart.

    through out History Many have tried to wipe the good from our history books.
    Read the Bible Jesus will Bless you more then i can.

    SolarWorld has been presenting a Einstein Award to personalities who have advanced
    the use of solar energy – and helped our Planet Earth.

    We all need to tell all our Teachers and Leaders to use our Nation’s Energy more wisely
    and efficient. Start to Teach all our Young about Renewable Energy Solar, Wind, and so on.

    Renewable Energy

    Solar, Wind, Hydro, Geothermal and others should be on the front cover of every
    Science Book kindergarten through High School.

    Very soon most of the world will not need Oil or Dangerous and Disastrous Nuclear Power.
    Renewable Energy like Solar, Wind, Hydro and Geothermal are now replacing dirty Energy
    like Oil and Nuclear. Solar Energy is growing World Wide at a record pace.

    There is enough Solar Energy coming from our SUN to power all our need and then some.

    Wicked Leaders can no longer stop Einstein Dream.


    GOD Bless all that spotlight Solar Energy.

    The Lord’s little Helper
    Paul Felix Schott

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