But in Texas, despite having a close relationship with the sun and its heat (2011 gave us 100 days over 100 degrees and no rain), we have yet to realize our potential for solar energy development, the highest potential of any state in the nation. Texas currently only has about 213 megawatts (MW) of solar energy installed (compared to over 237 MW in little ol’ Massachusetts). Recent developments, however, make me encouraged that the next few years will be the catalyst for finally fulfilling that potential.
A few weeks ago, the Austin City Council voted on an ambitious solar step forward, directing a “utility-scale solar target of 600 megawatts by 2017, a rooftop solar target of 200 megawatts by 2020, explicit language enabling third-party solar ownership, a floor price for the value-of-solar tariff…and a mandatory strategy to procure 200 megawatts of fast-response storage.” The resolution will require the municipal utility, Austin Energy, to obtain 60 percent of its electricity generation from renewables over the next decade, and to be completely carbon-free by 2030.
It’s about time, as the cost of solar panels has dropped 80 percent since 2008 and prices for rooftop PV systems have declined markedly in recent years, dropping 29 percent from 2010 to 2013. This deal “will by itself launch the state of Texas into the top five solar states within a few years.”
This comes on the heels of Austin Energy’s recent deal with Recurrent Energy for a “20-year, 150 megawatt solar contract that may count among the cheapest prices ever offered for solar power,” at $.05 per kWh, or $50 per MWh. The deal will help create the largest solar generation facility in Texas — 600 acres worth of panels.
A five-kilowatt home rooftop PV system produces an average of 7,000 to 8,000 kilowatt-hours per year, roughly equivalent to the electricity use of a typical U.S. household. On the utility-scale side, one megawatt is enough power for 100 homes and requires about four acres of solar farm to generate. So it makes sense this technology would be appealing.
The resolution would save Austin ratepayers money and keep electricity prices in the lowest 50 percent range among Texas utilities. With numbers like that it’s no mystery why utilities and power producers are starting to see the light on solar. Recently, the City of Georgetown, with about 1/20th the number of customers of a utility like Austin Energy, issued its own proposal for 150 MW of solar. Since the Austin Energy announcement, several utilities in Texas have been looking at investments in new solar power plants.
But, the City of Austin's goals aren’t final yet. Austin Energy has raised concerns, among them apprehension over the price of solar. However, the resolution gives Austin Energy an out if the cost of a particular solar project is too high. On Wednesday, September 24th, the City will hold a Council Committee meeting to discuss the resolution and Austin Energy’s somewhat controversial response. Both the press release Austin Energy General Manager Larry Weis sent and the rebuttal by Clay Butler, who helped draft the resolution, are here.
Austin is a shining example of how to transform the old energy world into the new one. It won't be a perfect process. However, Austin has the opportunity to lead the entire state into the clean energy future, propelling Texas to number one in the U.S. for solar production, as we already are for wind production.
These are the kind of economics that excite First Solar, who announced the launch of its Barilla Solar Project in Pecos County “adding about 18 megawatts of solar capacity to Texas’ electric grid. The company expects to have a total of 30 megawatts installed by the end of the year." First Solar is confident their electricity can compete on the open market. They financed and opened Barilla without signing a power purchase agreement, which would guarantee a buyer for their energy. This is a bullish outlook and the first time a solar company has put a project on the open wholesale market like this.
This weekend, almost half a million people marched through the streets of Austin, New York, and other cities throughout the world, demanding we change our energy habits and combat climate change. Texas can undoubtedly lead this revolution with the right policies in place. This is a role that should not be taken lightly or carelessly, and City of Austin's resolution and First Solar’s plant are key steps leading us in the right direction.