City hopes solar project partnership will yield fiscal, environmental benefits

Project developer, Big Sun Solar, hopes to complete it in two and a half years

SAN ANTONIO – Earlier this month, the San Antonio City Council passed a vote approving $30 million as the city embarks on a plan to install solar panels across 42 city facilities.

According to a news release from the Office of Sustainability, the new solar project is the largest in the state and the second largest in the country.

The City of San Antonio’s Chief Sustainability Officer Doug Melnick welcomed the council’s vote. Melnick described the financial avenues from which the project will source.

“One of the things that people hear first is the cost, you know, $30 million. That’s a lot of money,” Melnick said. “This project pays [that] back in about ten years. We’re taking advantage of multiple financial mechanisms from the federal government. The Inflation Reduction Act is providing us with direct pay benefits to cover, at a minimum, 30% of the costs. We’re receiving a $2.5 million low-interest loan from the state.”

Melnick added that this is part of the SA Climate Ready plan — a goal to have all municipal buildings at zero energy by 2040.

But this project is also fiscally responsible for the present and future.

“It’s a great story,” Melnick said. “And at the end of the day, not only does it pay for itself, but it generates revenue. How many city projects actually generate revenue?”

Melnick added that the city can expect, at a minimum, very conservatively that this project will net anywhere from $9 million to $11 million, and that’s why choosing the team to assemble the multi-million dollar deal was so important.

The project’s developer, Big Sun Solar, has seen exponential growth across the city. The company works with CPS Energy, apartment buildings and now this city project.

So in 2016, my co-founder and I, Robert Miggins, it was just the two of us, and we started the company at Geekdom,” Big Sun Solar President Jason Pittman said.

Pittman explained some of the projects the developer will undertake.

“Some of these projects are shade structures within city parks,” Pittman said. “And so we’re going to cover basketball courts. We want to try to activate those spaces for the community during the summer.”

There is also a plan for solar panels to shade four pickleball courts on the city’s West Side.

“This project, once completed, will reduce our electricity consumption for our buildings and facilities by 11%,” Melnick said.

One of the fascinating features of the project is that it not only generates power — but if there are widespread electrical issues — these projects can hold power.

“All of these systems could potentially have battery storage as the cost of battery storage goes down. We could install them, and you’ll have sites across all of the city that will have solar and storage,” Melnick said.

As for Big Sun Solar and the completion of the projects, the goal is sooner rather than later.

“We have five years to build all the projects,” Pittman said. “We think we can build them all in two and a half.”

The plan is to start at the beginning of 2024.

Big Sun Solar said for the size of the project, they are looking to hire more people, ranging from engineers to installation crews. If you are interested in applying, click here.

The project passed a City Council vote of 9-1. District 10 city councilman Marc Whyte was the lone nay and, in response to an inquiry from KSAT, stated:

“I’m not against solar technology. The reason I voted the way I did is because I have issues with how the City is proposing to pay for this new solar technology. Taking on more debt, in the amount of $30 million, without engaging with the public or seeking voter approval is something that has become a habit for our City. We have to stop it. The City of San Antonio’s debt is approx $18.5 billion, which is about $12,557 per resident. I would have liked to have seen this project on a smaller scale, with a smaller price tag for the taxpayer.”

About the Authors:

Max Massey is the GMSA weekend anchor and a general assignments reporter. Max has been live at some of the biggest national stories out of Texas in recent years, including the Sutherland Springs shooting, Hurricane Harvey and the manhunt for the Austin bomber. Outside of work, Max follows politics and sports, especially Penn State, his alma mater.

Azian Bermea is a photojournalist at KSAT.