Why solar power is still waiting for ‘liftoff’ in Texas

Click through the gallery above to see the world’s largest solar farm.

Lincoln Clean Energy swooped into Texas last year with plans to build the state’s largest solar farm, a $320 million project covering 2,400 acres in the Texas Panhandle and capable of powering 40,000 homes — even on the hottest days.

But more than six months after construction was scheduled to begin, ceremonial shovels have yet to break ground on the Nazareth Solar project about 60 miles south of Amarillo. The problem: No one wants to buy the electricity.

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The Texas solar rush is far from achieving its promise. At least five major solar projects have been delayed or canceled, while some industry giants, such as SunEdison, have filed for bankruptcy.

“You haven’t seen quite the liftoff with solar yet in Texas,” said Philip Moore, Lincoln’s vice president of development.

As a result, the state may add only about half the anticipated 2,000 megawatts of installed solar energy by the end of 2017. (A megawatt can power about 200 homes). The roughly 300 megawatts of grid-scale solar power in Texas accounts for less than 1 percent of the state’s electricity generation, according to the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which oversees about 90 percent of the power grid.

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Despite natural advantages such as nearly 300 sunny days a year and plenty of open spaces to site projects, Texas ranks 10th in solar installation. Rock-bottom natural gas prices, which have lowered the cost of traditional power generation, and a lack of state incentives make it nearly impossible for solar to compete dollar for dollar in the Texas marketplace — even with federal tax breaks, said Travis Miller, director of utilities research at Morningstar.

Solar doesn’t compete with wind, which costs about 15 percent less than solar, according to renewable energy developers. Texas leads the nation in wind power with an expected capacity by the end of the year of more than 20,000 megawatts — enough to power about 5 million homes when the wind is blowing. In March, wind generated more than 20 percent of the state’s power for the first time in a month, more than coal or nuclear power.

“At the current costs for solar,” Miller said, “it’s going to struggle to be competitive in Texas given the low cost of gas and the huge amount of wind generation.”

At HoustonChronicle.com, Jordan Blum explains why further production of solar energy, which has found success in San Antonio and Austin, is critical for Texas.