The virtue of green synergy: Sustainable building in San Antonio

By John David Baldwin on January 22, 2016

The merger of two pillars of San Antonio’s sustainable energy community seeks to strengthen the region’s efforts to promote energy sustainability. Last fall, Build San Antonio Green (BSAG) and Solar San Antonio (SSA) finalized their combination. Build San Antonio Green functioned primarily as a certification body for builders and developers. Solar San Antonio advocated for solar and connected homeowners through its Bring Solar Home (BSH) program. The two merged under the BSAG umbrella. This may serve as an interesting example of how green entities in a geographic area, by joining forces, can achieve synergy in advocating for sustainable energy.
William “Bill” Sinkin founded both Solar San Antonio and Build San Antonio Green. Bill was perhaps the city’s greatest solar visionary. (He passed away last year at the age of 100.) Bill had a long career as a banker and community activist. He “retired” in 1987 at the age of 74 and devoted himself to alternative energy and energy conservation. He used the contacts he had acquired in the banking and activist fields to set up an organization, Solar San Antonio, in 1999. It was to serve as an information hub for solar energy in the city. As he put in a 2005 interview, “Our whole mission has been education and sensitizing and establishing sort of a center for information.” This has borne fruit with the merged company that now exists. His son, Lanny Sinkin, was executive director of Solar San Antonio before it merged with BSAG.

Bill founded the precursor organization to BSAG in 2002 as a result of the Texas Emissions Reduction Act. This law required municipalities to reduce their electrical consumption by five percent a year over a period of five years. BSAG has certified more than 5,200 single family and multifamily new construction and retrofit projects over fifteen years in the Greater San Antonio region. BSAG estimates this has resulted in 9.72 MWs of peak demand reduction.

Previously, the two organizations had separately fulfilled specific goals: SSA provided solar for homeowners through its BSH program; BSAG provided certification for builders and developers. The merger, which was finalized in September, provided both organizations (now a single entity) the opportunity to enhance their missions while reducing costs, as well as maximizing resources and funding opportunities. BSAG brings to the merged entity, according to Anita Ledbetter, BSAG’s Executive Director, “extensive knowledge and technical expertise” of such subjects as building codes.

As Ledbetter explains, “We were working on the logistical ‘field’ issues, and we bring that experience into the Bring Solar Home program. The technical experience BSAG has gained from the certification of more than 5,000 projects expanded the reach and services of [BSH]. Likewise, it allowed us to streamline some additional services and offerings to our builders and developers that participate in our certification program, although BSAG has always provided technical assistance to our builders that want solar.”

BSH, which Ledbetter describes as a “solar concierge service,” is a free program that does not itself install solar systems. Like a hotel concierge, BSH functions as single source to enable a variety of different objectives. BSH promotes two programs for homeowners, in addition to traditional solar system ownership: SolarHost and Roofless Solar. SolarHost works through PowerFin Partners to put panels on roofs of homeowners who, though they don’t own the panels, receive a credit for any energy that goes out to CPS Energy’s grid. Roofless Solar is a community solar program, provided by Clean Energy Collective in partnership with CPS Energy.

BSAG is continuing its certification of residential buildings and moving into light commercial and mixed-use buildings for builders and developers as well. The new, updated BSH includes a mobile responsive website, new marketing and education efforts, due diligence and an imbedded concierge program for SolarHost.

“These programs can radically accelerate adoption on a mass scale,” said Ledbetter, “in that they have the potential to put solar on every rooftop in San Antonio… while promoting economic development, job creation and, best of all, bringing equitable clean power to the citizens of San Antonio.”

BSAG also offers annual Green Home Tours. These tours fulfill a two-fold purpose: they give BSAG a chance to share the work of its builders and vendors with the public (“like a mini-parade of homes for green builders,” as Ledbetter describes it), and they allow the organization to show homeowners, home buyers and the general public what it means to own a green home. “They get to talk to the owners of the home and find out what they like about it, what their experience has been. [The event] allows them to talk to the builders and some of the vendors and get an idea of what they may want to see in their home and how they can go about making that happen,” said Ledbetter.

In 2013, BSAG won the National Association of Homebuilders’ Advocate of the Year – State/Local Government Award. According to Ledbetter, “We see our advocacy as best shown by example. Our work in the green building industry is the best way in which we can advocate for progress.”

The new BSAG may serve as a model for the rest of the country in that it works in partnership with both governmental and corporate entities to furnish a “one-stop shop” for consumers interested in solar power and energy conservation, and who need their questions answered and a link to sign up for the program of their choice, drastically simplifying these processes. “We see San Antonio as an example city,” said Ledbetter. “The way we handle green issues and sustainability here serves as a model for other cities in Texas, as well as the country.”