Sunday, June 10, 2012

The Texas Observer

After years of failed promise, solar power is finally becoming affordable. San Antonio is betting that solar energy will be the next big thing.

CPS solar farm
Jared Anderson works on a panel at a CPS solar farm off Blue Wing Road.
When completed, 214,500 panels will cover a 110-acre area at the site.

BILL SINKIN HAS A KNACK for being ahead of his time. Fifty years ago, he headed the committee that brought HemisFair to San Antonio, the 1968 world fair that put the city on the map. It’s been 24 years since he retired from Texas State Bank, where he pioneered hiring minorities and lending to small businesses. At age 99, he’s still thinking ahead. And the future, he believes, is solar power.

"Solar is the gold mine of the future," Sinkin says. "It’s the cleanest, it’s the purest, it’s the safest source of power we have in our universe." It was a blustery, decidedly un-sunny day in March, and Sinkin was, as usual, at his office, sitting at his desk, well-groomed and bow-tied, surrounded by photos from his storied life as one of San Antonio’s most progressive, civic-minded citizens. Sinkin and Henry B. Gonzalez. Sinkin and Ralph Yarborough. Sinkin and John F. Kennedy. For the past 25 years, "The Chairman," as his son Lanny calls him, has been telling anyone who would listen that San Antonio could be a leader in renewable energy—especially solar power, an energy source that seems to match his personality.

Sinkin first fell for solar in 1983 after he installed a solar hot water heater on his bank building. "It worked for six months and then it broke, and he couldn’t find anyone to fix it. But he got a taste of what solar could be like," said Lanny Sinkin. "And he thought, this is something we ought to do."

For Bill Sinkin, the potential benefits of solar energy were obvious: free energy from the sun, cleaner and better than oil and gas, and accessible to everyone. A chicken in every pot and a solar panel on every roof. But San Antonio lacked just about everything needed for a vibrant solar industry: skilled technicians, public awareness, and leadership in business and government. When Sinkin worked with a local builder in 2002 to install panels on a handful of new homes, the electrician hired for the job shocked himself trying to install the system.

In 1999, at the tender age of 85, Sinkin founded the nonprofit Solar San Antonio. The group advocates for solar energy and has tried to convince city leaders and citizens that the Alamo City could be a leader in the field. Solar energy, he thought, was ready for the big time.

But the solar breakthrough never happened. The high upfront costs of setting up solar panels deterred serious investment, and the industry didn’t garner the buzz associated with wind power. While Sinkin never stopped promoting solar, few were willing to buy into the idea. "Everybody says, ‘Solar’s great,’" Sinkin told the San Antonio Express-News in 2000, "but everybody says, ‘Show us first.’"

Read more… at The Texas Observer site…

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