Advocates envision Texas as solar power leader
Feb 22, 2010 - Randy Lee Loftis - The Dallas Morning News
The sun could rival the wind as a clean power source in Texas' near future, if the state gets serious about tapping the potential of pollution-free solar energy.
That's the belief, at least, of some builders, equipment
manufacturers and energy experts.
Texas already leads the nation in producing wind power, and given its sunny climate, scientists say it has the capacity to dominate solar, too.
To help make that happen, solar advocates are urging the Texas Public Utility Commission to set solar usage requirements for electric retailers.
"We actually are a perfect environment, economically and thermodynamically, as a raw resource for solar, but it hasn't taken off," said Michael E. Webber, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Texas .
"However, I think it's about to," said Webber, who is also associate director of UT's Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy.
The PUC, an agency run by three gubernatorial appointees, is considering a plan to give solar power the same kind of boost that the state gave to wind power in 1999.
The Legislature first told the PUC to boost solar power and other nonwind renewable energy sources in 2005, and the agency is now taking steps to implement those instructions.
North Texas homebuilder Jim Sargent says those are steps in the right direction.
His Waxahachie company is building solar-equipped houses that both conserve energy and generate it.
Some of the homes generate so much solar power and use so little electricity overall that they end up taking no net energy from the state's electric grid, Sargent said.
One of the company's net-zero homes is a high-end project in Farmers Branch with 23 kilowatts of solar-generating panels on its roof, plus a solar water-heating system.
"The smart money is that [solar power] is going to be a growing source of our electricity," said Cyrus Reed, conservation director of the Sierra Club's Texas chapter.
The PUC's solar program would be based on the existing renewable portfolio standards, a requirement dating to 1999 for electric companies to include sources such as wind, solar and other renewable sources in their energy mixes.
Texas' renewable energy standards, among the most aggressive in the country, have been so successful that electric companies met the 2009 goal by 2005. The Legislature responded in 2005 by setting more ambitious targets for 2015 and 2025.
Nearly all of Texas' growth in renewable energy has been in wind power, which increased fourfold over 10 years. Other renewable power sources remained afterthoughts.
Solar power was especially held back by its cost, technological challenges and lack of transmission lines from sun-rich West Texas to energy-hungry cities.
Legislators recognized the lag with a 2005 mandate that Texas energy include at least 500 megawatts of new power from sources other than wind by 2015. The state also took steps to provide more electric transmission lines.
After waiting in vain in 2007 and 2009 for more legislative guidance on the 500-megawatt target – there was confusion, for example, over whether it was a mandate or just a guideline – the PUC is moving on its own to implement it as a mandate.
When the PUC commissioners give the go-ahead, agency officials will turn a preliminary plan into a formal proposal for a vote by the commissioners, said PUC spokesman Terry Hadley. The agency expects to publish the formal proposal in early 2010.
The preliminary version that the PUC published in December identifies solar, hydroelectric and biomass, mostly waste products from agriculture, as nonwind renewable power sources. The plan sets a target of 50 megawatts, or one-tenth, from solar, but solar's growth could easily pass that mark, some experts predict.
The 500-megawatt set-aside for nonwind renewable sources is roughly the energy equivalent of a single coal-burning power plant, but without the carbon dioxide, smog, acid rain and toxic pollution that come from burning coal, or the radioactive waste that comes from nuclear power.
As with wind, solar power's fuel is free. A solar system can have high initial costs, though those figures are dropping rapidly. For economic and assorted other reasons, however, it has not become a mainstream power source.
Adding 500 megawatts would be a small start – less than 5 percent of the state's existing energy mix. Still, it would represent the biggest boost yet for harnessing the Texas sun.
Webber, the UT professor, conducted a survey of solar systems in service in Texas during 2008. He found 6.7 megawatts of solar-generating systems in the state.
"That's about zero," he said.
Texas has about 102,000 megawatts of generating capacity from all sources. Natural gas and coal combined for about 85 percent of Texas' generation in 2008, followed by nuclear with 10 percent, wind with 4 percent, and all other renewables, including solar, with just 1 percent.
Although Texas leads the nation by far in the potential for solar power, it trails many smaller states such as New Jersey in putting solar power in service. "New Jersey?" Webber asked in mock disbelief. "A small, cloudy state outdoes Texas?"
The commission's plan would use the same procedure as the existing renewable portfolio standard. Each electric retailer, municipally owned electric company or electrical cooperative would have to provide an amount of nonwind renewables in proportion to its share of the market.
A retailer that accounts for 10 percent of Texas' power sales, for example, would be responsible for providing 10 percent of the state goal, or 50 megawatts, of nonwind renewables.
Typical ways for retailers to comply include buying solar power from generating companies and selling it to their customers; buying renewable-energy credits from other companies; or subsidizing customers' purchase and installation of solar systems. A company that did not comply would have to pay alternative compliance payments – that is, cash penalties.
If Texas embraced big solar plans, advocates say, a 30-by-30-mile patch of remote, desolate West Texas covered with mirror-aided concentrated solar receptors could theoretically power the whole state, slashing air pollution. That prediction could be too optimistic, but the city-owned utilities in Austin and San Antonio are investing in large solar facilities.
Not just the rich
On a smaller scale, Texas could provide tax breaks or other incentives for builders to follow Jim Sargent's example.
In addition to the high-end project in Farmers Branch , his company – AndersonSargent Custom Builders – has also built smaller, near-net-zero solar homes in North Texas for $85 a square foot.
Sargent said he could reach net-zero for less than $100 a square foot, countering solar's long-standing image as an expensive, feel-good diversion for the wealthy.
"It really doesn't have to cost more," he said.
For obvious business reasons, Sargent is a strong supporter of the state plan for making solar an official component of Texas energy.
"All this wind [power] we have is because we adopted the renewable energy standard," he said.
"Solar can benefit in the same way."