Wimberley Area Faces Future Energy Needs with Little Support from PEC. Will A New Board See the Solar Light?

A summary of rebates and assistance programs. Source: Data published online May 5, 2008 by power companies serving Austin, San Antonio, and the Hill Country of Central Texas. Sources, AustinEnergy.com, CPSEnergy,com, and PEC.coop. (Chart VisitWimberley.com)

It's official. We're in an energy crisis, and it's not likely to get better soon. Every day it's becoming more clear that our dependence on fossil fuels is part of a system that must be changed. Harnessing the immense power of the Texas sun for clean, sustainable energy is one logical solution. Our local electric cooperative, PEC, has contributed to the problem through lack of support for technologies that replace sources like coal and oil.

The Wimberley area has been feeling the effects of continuing dependence on fossil fuels for some time. More than one homeowner or business in the Hill Country has been wishing lately their electrical power came from a renewable source like sun or wind.

Energy costs are skyrocketing and oil companies are making record profits. The president of OPEC, Chakib Khelil, warned the price of crude could hit $200 a barrel. He's probably right, despite bouncing recession-era prices.

And we've seen with the largest oil spill in history off our shores, BP's Deepwater Horizon, that the costs reach far higher than just the price we see at the pump.

Added to that is the fact that visitors now look twice at the astronomical costs of fuel for what was once considered a short drive to the Hill Country - and Wimberley depends heavily on tourism.

Hill Country residents are also become more aware of the fragility of a lifestyle dependent on unsustainable energy sources. Going green is no longer just for "tree-huggers," but has become a goal for every Texan with awareness of the inconvenient truths of our rapidly diminishing resources.

Wimberley is feeling the pain and it's easy to see why those who work and live in the area are looking for ways to cope more efficiently with the energy challenge.

Metropolitan areas to the north and south of Wimberley are getting a little help from their friends at the local power company. This is not true for the Hill Country area, whose rural electric cooperative, Pedernales Electric (PEC), offers virtually no support or incentives to switch to sustainable power sources and retrofits for energy conservation.

Direct conversion of solar radiation to electricity (photovoltaics and concentrating solar power) is an obvious solution to the energy problem in Central Texas, converting heat from the infamously hot Texas sun to a priceless asset. Scaling up the use of solar energy is a no-brainer, it would seem.

A solar hot water heater is a beautiful thing.
Although the power companies that serve Austin (Austin Energy) and San Antonio (CPS Energy) now offer more than a dozen ways to assist residents toward sustainable practices, PEC appears to be operating in another, earlier, century.

Since electric cooperatives were begun to bring electric initiatives to rural areas, this anachronism stands in even greater relief. In 1935, the Rural Electric Administration (REA) was created under Franklin D. Roosevelt to improve the standard of living and the economic competitiveness of rural communities. An electric co-op would seem to be the key to the doorway of the future, helping us all attain a sustainable lifestyle through support, education, and incentives.

Unfortunately, the PEC falls woefully short on all fronts. For starters, take the educational arm of this mission. One example is the use of the Pedernales edition of the Texas Co-op Power magazine to offer only such light-hearteded suggestions as buying Energy Star appliances on a sales tax holiday. (Texas Co-op Power, May, 2008: p.5) To this date, July 11, 2010, no serious articles offering realistic suggestions for the implementation of residential solar power have been published.

This publication, sent to every PEC member-customer on a monthly basis, could provide a significant service through information and resources for sustainable living, "helping to improve the standard of living and the economic competitiveness of rural communities." Instead, as an example of the treatment of the subject of solar power in the magazine, the same May issue mentions it only once,  in a "Letter to the Editor" selected for print entitled "Solar Systems Expensive." (ibid, p. 4)

A more recent edition ostensibly addresses the issues surrounding solar options with the discouraging opening line, "Practically speaking, solar-generated electricity is still but a glimmer in our future." Although this may well summarize the current PEC attitude toward solar solutions, it highlights how woefully out of touch the organization remains with the urgent need to support and promote sustainable energy for the people who send in the checks each month.

CPE Energy was a big part of the San Antonio Solar Fest, giving away trees for planting on West and South sides of residences.

The PEC's approach to upcoming and existing energy needs stands in stark contrast to the excellent rebate programs offered by Austin Energy and CPS. (See the chart above.) Austin Energy even offers low-cost loans to purchase and install solar electric power systems.

It is true that the PEC was embroiled in controversy due to revelations leading to a lawsuit that sought removal of the entire board of directors, reduction in executive compensation, and return of dividends to members, among other things.

Is this a good time to begin implementing programs to help members deal with the energy mess we now face? You bet is is! A good marketing expert would surely urge the addition of rebates for green solutions immediately, with an effective, far-reaching publicity campaign. It may not offer a do-over, but could help hit the reset button for public opinion on the PEC.

The opportunity exists, the need is great, the time is now. Wimberley and the Hill Country have become accustomed to expecting little from their electric co-op, while for others, a healthy rebate for solar PV residential and commercial installations is on the way to becoming an industry standard.

It remains to be seen whether Pedernales Electric management can rev up to speed and face the energy future with - or against - the members they serve.