The Weekend Wonk: Newest Texas Energy Boom is Solar

August 21, 2015

Above, I recently chatted again with Michael Osborne, former Executive at Austin Energy,  now Chairman of the Electric Utility Commission for Austin, Texas.
Austin Energy is one of the nation’s largest municipal utilities, and has been on the cutting edge of solar and wind energy development for decades.

Wall Street Journal:

FORT STOCKTON, Texas—A new energy boom is taking shape in the oil fields of west Texas, but it’s not what you think. It’s solar.

Solar power has gotten so cheap to produce—and so competitively priced in the electricity market—that it is taking hold even in a state that, unlike California, doesn’t offer incentives to utilities to buy or build sun-powered generation.

Pecos County, about halfway between San Antonio and El Paso and on the southern edge of the prolific Permian Basin oil field, could soon host to several large solar-energy farms responsible for about $1 billion in investments, according to state tax records.

On a recent day, contractors for OCI Solar Power LLC erected posts for a solar farm that will be the size of more than 900 football fields. First Solar Inc. was negotiating to lease an adjacent property, its second project in the county. Last year, the Arizona company began capturing sunlight on 400,000 black solar panels in a separate project, converting the abundant sunlight into about 30 megawatts of power.
texas_solarwsfWest Texas “is flat, the land is open, available and cheap and there is a lot of sun” said Raiford Smith, vice president of corporate planning for CPS Energy, a city-owned utility in San Antonio. “It is an ideal place for putting solar.”

Another reason for the boom: Texas recently wrapped up construction of $6.9 billion worth of new transmission lines, many connecting West Texas to the state’s large cities. These massive power lines enabled Texas to become, by far, the largest U.S. wind producer.

Solar developers plan to move electricity on the same lines, taking advantage of a lull in wind generation during the heat of the day when solar output is at its highest.

My discussion with Michael was wide ranging, and I’ll be posting a part 2 in the coming week.

My prior interview with Mr. Osborne was included in the very popular Yale Climate Connections video on solar and renewable energy, below:

23 Responses to “The Weekend Wonk: Newest Texas Energy Boom is Solar”

  1. redskylite Says:

    Good News .. solar is advancing in Texas as it is in the state of Colorado …..

    “For the first time, the company received bids for utility-scale solar PV resources that are cost-effective head to head with natural-gas fired generation,”

    http://www.renewableenergyworld.com/articles/2015/08/solar-beats-gas-in-colorado.html

  2. redskylite Says:

    My house was built at the turn of the century, but look at what opportunities are beginning to present themselves now, Wow . . .

    https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/homes-make-as-much-energy-as-they-use/

  3. redskylite Says:

    Look at what has been achieved in the city of West Richland, Washington, we
    really do this .. ..

    http://cleantechnica.com/2015/08/21/street-lighting-electricity-consumption-cut-by-61-with-leds-wireless-controls/

  4. firstdano Says:

    Thank you for doing this Peter. One thing about rooftop solar in cities: only ~25% of roofs are suitable for solar collection. We cannot cut down trees to collect solar energy, as those trees are needed to cool that building and the surrounding area (and needed for other things too).

    Best,

    D

    • j4zonian Says:

      Rooftops as well as parking lots and other structures, (bridges, roadways, railway rights of way….) should be used for a combination of solar, wind and water collection and food production. Those not suitable for those can be painted white.

  5. Gingerbaker Says:

    Right now Texas generates about 40,000 GWh’s of non renewable electricity every year. (http://www.eia.gov/state/?sid=TX#tabs-4)

    In 2015, large-scale solar generated less than 200 GWt’s, according to the above graph.

    Not sure how they compare.

    According to this,(http://www.ercot.com/news/press_releases/show/26576) in 2013 solar contribution to Texas electricity generation was minuscule and its share was actually dropping. Coal use was up.

    Nowhere to go but up for solar.


    • They don’t directly compare: One is an energy figure, the other a power figure. (Also it’s a bit shy of 200 MW of solar right now).

      If you want to compare them, you need to multiply the power figure by the time involved for the energy figure, (or divide the energy figure). Looking at the EIA graph, it seems to be a monthly figure, (although I’m not sure how you get 40TWh).

      Using 200 MW, for ease of calculations, we would have ~145GWh a month if we were to assume 100% production at full power, (200MW * 30 days/month * 24 hours/day). This is a silly assumption, a more reasonable one puts solar production on the order of 10-50GWh per month.

      So it’s a tiny contribution right now.

  6. MorinMoss Says:

    Texas is way late to the party on this and given their excellent insolation, more than a dollar short.
    I’ve been saying for years that they should have pursued solar in any form at least as aggressively as they have wind.

    Texas should be top 3, at worst top 5, in USA installed solar. Having to catch up to New Jersey and Massachusetts is ridiculous.

    • Phillip Shaw Says:

      I feel Texas is getting there, albeit slower than I ‘would like – and we are getting the largely unforeseen benefit of plummeting PV module costs. Utility scale solar farms can make a profit selling power at rates unheard of just a few years ago.

  7. Gingerbaker Says:

    What was really interesting to me about the video was when Michael Osborne was talking about how Austin’s solar capacity was able to cover the late afternoon-early evening peak demand – which is exactly when the sun was going down over Austin itself.

    He said that their evening solar power came from large-scale plants located 500-600 miles to the west of the city! “In a different time zone” was how he put it.

    Now, you all know how I am constantly going on about how it will be large-scale plants shipping electricity long distances that will be the key to our energy future? Well – here it is in action, and it is brilliant!

    • dumboldguy Says:

      “In a different time zone”? Not quite, although that makes a great sound bite.

      Austin is at ~30 degrees N, and the sun line moves at about 895 mph at that latitude. Ignoring seasons, “500-600 miles” means 33 to 40 more minutes of sun at “the plants to the west”.

      Now if the powers-that-don’t-want-to would extend GB’s grid well into NM and AZ, it WOULD be in a different time zone and would probably last through Austin’s peak demand.

      • rayduray Says:

        Thanks for doing the math for us. I was wondering where we’d have to put the most efficient solar arrays to air-condition Austin at 4 PM. They’d be at a four hour lag, at Noon, and 60 degree latitude further west.

        Conveniently, that places them in Honolulu.

        • dumboldguy Says:

          Yep, but Home Depot probably doesn’t carry extension cords that long. Where is Tesla when you need him?

          (And you did a George W Bush and “disremembered”— it’s longitude east-west, latitude north-south)

        • Phillip Shaw Says:

          The simplest way to shift the solar peak energy production is to orient the arrays SSW instead of due S. A 15 degree shift to the west moves the daily peak for a non-tracking array to around 1 pm.

    • MorinMoss Says:

      America is way behind in an interconnected grid and will see many benefits from something like the Tres Amigas Superstation, if it ever gets built.

      Given the multicountry links that Europe has had in place for decades, the state of the US grid is an embarrassment.

  8. andrewfez Says:

    Sill waiting for oil to bottom to pick up more First Solar and SunPower. Though if the correction continues it’ll once again be time to start buying more Johnson and Johnson and other dividend growers.

    • dumboldguy Says:

      Buy “dividend growers”? Maybe it’s time to buy guns, MRE’s, overpriced gold coins, and other “survival supplies” rather than sink $$$ into the paper supporting the system that is enriching the 1% and destroying the planet Are we nearing the end times? (Cue ominous music)

      • andrewfez Says:

        If the end times look as thought they are on the horizon, I’m going to start buying toothpaste and toothbrushes and will sell them for loafs of bread and plucked chickens.

        • MorinMoss Says:

          If the End Times are truly near, I fear dental hygiene will be the 1st thing to go so you’re likely wasting your time.

          • dumboldguy Says:

            Actually, I think the folks who will stick their guns in his face and take all his chickens will be glad that he has shiny teeth and sweet breath, and therefore may not shoot him when they’re done mugging him.. So maybe there is some survival value in what he says.

          • MorinMoss Says:

            You’ve never seen Deliverance????

          • andrewfez Says:

            Ha, ha! Keeping one’s teeth healthy is the key to longevity. If I can’t buy toothpaste, I’ll buy straws and apple sauce.


  9. […] Part 2 of my interview with Austin, TX Electric Utility Commissioner Michael Osborne. Part one here. […]


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