A 39-megawatt solar plant in Austin has been largest in Texas until now. Photo Credit Joshua Hill
Texas is a solar energy enigma - having the highest renewable energy potential of any state in the U.S., but nearly the lowest per-capita solar energy.
BClare Foran, Jason Plautz and Patrick Reis of The National Journal asks The New Energy Paradigm: Why Is Texas Terrible at Producing Solar Power?
Texas is an energy superpower, and not just for fossil fuels. The Lone Star State produces more natural gas than any other state, but it also leads the nation in wind energy.
It's also a massive, Southern, sun-baked state that is so full of the wide-open spaces needed for solar panels that it rivals California for the nation's largest solar-energy potential, according to an Energy Department report. Texas, the report says, is home to a full 20 percent of total U.S. potential for concentrated solar power.
Solar energy developers have always kept an eye on West Texas, due to a combination of cheap land and lack of cloud cover. But obstacles such a poor quality transmission lines to the more populated centers of demand in East Texas, lack on any net-metering program, and lack of any state subsidies or incentives seen in many other states have held solar and wind applications back. Also, Texas has among lowest electricity prices in the nation due to plentiful and inexpensive sources of natural gas.
Despite what would appear to be a lucrative market, the largest solar farm in Texas, until now, has been a small 39-megawatt solar farm in San Antonio. The total solar generation capacity, including rooftops, for Texas is less than 220 megawatts, which on a per-capita basis, is "nearly the lowest in the U.S., says James Osborne.
Now that's about to change, for a number of reasons. 350 megawatts of new solar generation capacity is scheduled to be built by 2016, which will more than double the installed base of solar power.
James Osborne of Dallas News writes Solar power gains momentum after long struggle in Texas.
Recurrent announced plans last month to build a 150-megawatt solar farm in West Texas after signing a 20-year power purchase deal with Austin Energy. That comes just months after First Solar, one of the world’s largest solar companies, began construction on a 22-megawatt farm near Fort Stockton with plans of eventually expanding to 150 megawatts.
Osborne reports two new driver has been environmental requirements from Austin's and San Antonia's city-owned utilities to expand the amount of electricity coming from solar energy in the next decade, combined with a 60% to 70% drop in the cost of solar generation in the last two years alone leading to a surge of applications for 2,000 megawatts worth of new solar generation capacity to the Texas electric grid.
Recurrent EnergyCalifornia’s Mojave Desert is home to a 26-megawatt solar farm. It has announced plans to build a 150-megawatt facility in West Texas.
Even though Recurrent's selling price for power is 5 cents per kilowatt hour which is 25% above current market prices, their price guarantee for a 20-year contract makes solar competitive on price alone, because both coal and natural gas are expected to become more expensive over that time period.
“On the surface it looks like a very attractive deal,” John Fainter, president of the Association of Electric Companies of Texas, said of the Recurrent contract. “With all this coal being retired, you’re probably going to replace it with gas [plants]. And that will probably move the price of gas up and the price of power here. … If the price of the equipment keeps coming down, solar is going to be more and more attractive.”
For residential customers, solar remains a tough sell in Texas.
Another breakthrough has come in form of major upgrading of high voltage transmission lines from West Texas' potential solar generating fields to the more densely populated centers of electricity demand in Eastern Texas.
Last year, transmission companies completed $7 billion worth of high-voltage lines running to West Texas. Known as the Competitive Renewable Energy Zone project, it was intended to connect cities to the flood of new wind farms. Because most wind power is generated at night, ERCOT believes the lines could easily handle any demand for daytime solar transmission.
This complementary nature of solar and wind generation is also becoming noticed at the residential level with several new more quite wind generation designs, and new improved battery systems designed to store both.
So now developers are knocking on doors of large West Texas ranches to buy "options" to develop vast large-scale farms of the sort so far seen only in California, says Osborne.
For the last couple years we’ve had teams driving around, knocking on doors to option land until we’re ready to build,” said Arno Harris, CEO of San Francisco-based Recurrent Energy. “Texas is a large market. And it’s a growing market. … It’s really just economics. The solar industry has driven prices down to where solar can compete.”
So it looks like Texas may become the land of the rising sun in the near future.