By RONNIE CROCKER
Surely some wiseacre is on record observing that there are two things Texas has plenty of: hot air and hot sun.
But Texas may eventually have the last laugh. The state, which already leads the nation in turning wind into electricity, has quietly begun to harvest sunlight on a large scale.
Its first solar farm, an array of 215,000 photovoltaic panels that capture sun rays and turn them into power, went on line Thursday in San Antonio. Statewide, at least six more projects are in earlier stages of development.
“We have some of the best solar radiation in the country,” said a hopeful Luke Metzger of Environment Texas, “just a ton of sun.”
Until the big plants are up and adding electricity to the consumer grid, however, that power remains primarily potential. Tapping it will be controversial as long as solar is expensive relative to energy from other sources, overwhelmingly coal and natural gas.
And even if all the projects now on the books get built, they would create a mere sliver of the electricity Texans consume every year.
Yet proponents insist solar power has a bright future here, with economic as well as environmental benefits.
The cost factor
Electricity generated by solar-photovoltaic technology today costs five times as much to produce as coal-fired energy, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance. Natural gas is an even cheaper source.
Solar is expensive even compared with other renewable sources, especially wind, which is narrowing the price gap with fossil fuels. And the Energy Information Administration predicts that by 2016, photovoltaic power on average will remain more than twice as expensive as wind-generated and more than three times as expensive as coal-fired.
Yet state Rep. Mark Strama, D-Austin, contends that renewable energy, particularly solar, “is where the market is headed,” and Texas would be wise to support the fledgling industry. He sponsored legislation in 2009 that would have provided rebates for individuals adding solar panels to their homes and for companies building utility-scale solar plants.
That bill, one of dozens of solar-related measures introduced during the session, never made it to the House floor. Strama is working on a new package of legislation for the 2011 session, but it could face an even tougher test in the face of a budget crunch and a presumably more fiscally conservative Legislature.
Supporters see jobs
The solar industry has already spurred work in Texas. The recently released 2010 National Solar Jobs Census ranks Texas third among states, with an estimated 6,400 solar jobs at 170 companies. They include places like The Woodlands-based Evolution Solar Corp., which supplies solar panels and other equipment.
But the list, compiled by the nonprofit Solar Foundation, shows Texas far behind the No. 1 state. California boasts more than 1,000 solar companies and six times as many solar jobs as Texas.
The Obama administration recently approved a $6 billion project in California that it says will be the world’s largest solar farm, with the capacity to produce 1,000 megawatts of electricity.
This project, jointly developed by Solar Millennium and Chevron Energy Solutions, employs a different kind of solar technology. It also requires a vast field of converters pointed toward the sun, but not photovoltaic panels. Instead, parabolic mirrors collect heat and, through a “heat transfer fluid,” create steam, which then powers a traditional electricity-generating turbine.
It’s one of six fast-track projects approved for federal lands in California and Nevada.
Business group wary
Strama’s rebate proposal last year died at least in part because of concerns that low-income Texans would be forced to pay more for energy to cover the increased cost of solar. The rebates would have been funded by a fee on utility bills.
The Texas Association of Manufacturers, which opposed another 2009 bill to establish minimum levels of energy from renewable sources, says it supports “properly structured incentives.” But the group remains wary.
“We have concerns with energy projects that are based on government mandates and are ultimately funded by captive ratepayers,” executive director Luke Bellsnyder said in a statement. “Projects that are only financially possible because the costs will be passed on to customers — through above-market rates – are not a good deal for consumers and businesses.”
Proponents counter that with talk of jobs up and down the supply chain – from construction to grant-funded academic research to new businesses that supply and service the plants. For example, they say, glass panels are expensive to ship, and the right incentives could persuade manufacturers to build plants in the state.
Strama, Metzger and others warn that without government support, Texas is at risk of losing the next generation of energy jobs to other states, despite Texas’ deep roots in energy and its aggressive development of wind.
Metzger added another reason elected officials might want to take solar seriously: popular support.
“Polls show 80 percent of Texans want to see solar developed and support incentives to make it happen,” he said.
Partly sunny outlook
Texas’ first solar farm commenced commercial operations Thursday on approximately 140 acres off Interstate 37 in southeastern San Antonio, said Raul Cardenas, renewable/emissions program manager for the city-owned CPS Energy.
The utility has committed to purchasing electricity for 30 years from this farm, dubbed Blue Wing and owned by Duke Energy.
Blue Wing exists at least in part because CPS Energy’s board of directors set a goal of 1,500 megawatts from renewable sources by 2020. Cardenas said 100 of those megawatts must come from something other than wind.
To supplement the 14.4-megawatt capacity at Blue Wing, CPS recently announced a contract to buy power generated at three more solar farms to be developed in and around San Antonio by SunEdison. Each is expected to have capacity to produce 10 megawatts.
Meanwhile, an Austin-based company expects to break ground on two bigger projects by year’s end. Each of these $240 million solar farms will have the capacity to produce 60 megawatts of electricity.
Angelos Angelou, a consultant to the developer, RRE Austin Solar, said the company will break ground on a 728-acre former cornfield in Pflugerville next month and is negotiating contracts to sell electricity – enough to power 10,000 to 12,000 homes, he said – to private providers by next August.
Angelou said the site, 40 miles from downtown Austin, was ideal because it is flat and already has transmission lines nearby. Plus, he said, the local governments are friendly to solar’s economic-development potential.
Tax breaks a help
Because solar farms require so much land, property-tax breaks are important to make them viable, Angelou said. Even with abatements from Travis County on the Pflugerville site, he said, RRE Austin Solar expects to pay more than $1 million a year for local schools and government over the next 20 years.
He also predicted the project will create about 400 construction- and startup-related jobs over the next two to four years, although the plant itself will have no more than five full-time staff. The company also committed to maintaining headquarters in Austin.
RRE Austin Solar, founded earlier this year, expects to have up to 800 acres under contract in Big Spring for another project within 30 days, Angelou said, and is looking at sites in Ohio and Colorado as well.
He does not expect any environmental concerns to delay the Texas projects because the sites were already being disturbed for agriculture.
Another Austin-area proposal, a project in Webberville that was delayed by environmental concerns, appears to be back on track for opening by the end of next year.
The sun in perspective
If all seven Texas projects come on line as projected, they would have the combined capacity to produce 194.4 megawatts of electricity.
That barely ranks a footnote in a state with more than 84,000 megawatts of capacity on its electrical grid. It’s not even a zap compared with the 9,300-megawatt capacity of the state’s wind industry.
It is less than one-fifth the capacity of the newly announced California project.
Angelou said he is – and is not – surprised that solar development in Texas has trailed other states, particularly the 23 that set mandatory minimum levels for renewable energy.
“But,” he said, “we do have the sun, and we do have the wind.”