Solar power production expanding in Texas

A Recurrent Energy solar PV farm in California's Mojave Desert. Planned West Texas installation would be similar to this. Photo: Recurrent Energy.

A Recurrent Energy solar PV farm in California’s Mojave Desert. Planned West Texas installation would be similar to this. Photo: Recurrent Energy.

Texas — where “energy” has traditionally been virtually synonymous with oil and gas — is one of the last places on earth where you’d expect solar power to start gaining a foothold … particularly with the ridicule and outright hostility toward solar coming from many conservative political potentates.

But, lo and behold, solar power development is suddenly having a surge in the Lone Star State. Long considered the energy equivalent of a puny weakling mainly because of its high cost, solar power has become much more attractive over the last couple of years as its cost has dropped precipitously.

Texas’s spectacular solar power surge is the focus of a June 4th examination in the Dallas Morning News. Headlining the “momentum” that solar power has been gaining in the state, the article notes that “vast swaths of ranch land have been optioned for the large-scale solar developments usually seen only in California.”

These recent developments “represent the strongest foothold the solar industry has achieved in a state that does not offer the lucrative subsidies that drive development in other parts of the country …” emphasizes the News.

The article contrasts the scale of Texas’s previous solar power development vs. the future:

From small rooftop systems to Texas’ largest installation, a 39-megawatt solar farm in San Antonio, the state counts less than 220 megawatts of solar power. On a per-capita basis, that is nearly the lowest in the country.

But with almost 350 megawatts of new capacity scheduled to be built by 2016, that is likely to change.

Arno Harris, CEO of the major San Francisco-based power development firm Recurrent Energy, expressed optimism, noting:

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.

In May, Recurrent announced plans to develop a new solar farm in West Texas, “more than three times the size of anything that currently exists in the state …” according to the report. Designed to produce 150 megawatts of power, the new project was launched after Recurrent signed “a 20-year power purchase deal with Austin Energy.”

Furthermore, reports the News, “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.”

According to the article, driving the recent interest in solar power “are environmental mandates from Austin’s and San Antonio’s city-owned utilities to vastly expand how much electricity they get from solar in the decade ahead.” In addition, “the cost of solar has come down dramatically over the last two years — Harris estimated between 60 and 70 percent.”

The price of solar still needs to become more competitive says the report, noting that Recurrent is “reportedly selling power at the rate of around 5 cents per kilowatt hour ….” That’s “roughly 25 percent above the current wholesale rate in Texas.”

However, the inexorably rising cost of more traditional, fossil-fuel energy sources like oil, gas, and coal suggests that solar will become increasingly more economically attractive as time goes on. “But considering the 20-year contract and that power prices are prone to rise in the decades ahead, solar seems close to winning contracts on pricing alone …” says the article. ■