Solar Needs Market Changes To Bring Benefits To ‘Untapped’ Texas

5/3/13Follow @bromano

Solar power advocates hope this will be the summer that drought-stricken Texas sees the potential of this abundant natural energy source, and changes electricity market structures to take advantage of it.

“Texas is one of the largest untapped solar markets in the U.S.,” says Maura Yates of SunEdison, an integrated supplier of solar equipment and developer of large-scale projects. “When you look at Texas’s overall load of 68 gigawatts, our 100 megawatts on the system is a rounding error at this point.”

Yates and others say they bring a solution to Texas’ electricity challenges that is water-wise, fast to deploy, and matches market needs.

“Where the opportunity lies now for solar is in this conversation,” says Carrie Cullen Hitt, senior vice president of state affairs at the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA). “How can solar help with some of these major issues staring Texas in the face?”

Some 64 megawatts of solar were built in Texas last year, ranking the state 10th for new capacity. But oh, the potential. The SEIA says Texas could accommodate more than twice the solar generation capacity of any other state. Its rooftops alone could host 60,000 megawatts.

The solar development that has occurred in Texas so far is driven largely by municipal utilities, such as Austin Energy, responding to “specific civic interest,” says Hitt.

Though it has plenty of sunshine, Texas lacks a broad policy to spur the solar industry. It has not shied away from the other leading renewable energy source, however.

In 1999, under then-Gov. George W. Bush, Texas enacted a pioneering renewable energy mandate that propelled the state—blessed with the best wind resources in the country—toward wind-energy leadership. An expanded renewable energy mandate and a mechanism for driving construction of transmission lines connecting the state’s windy west with urban demand centers contributed to a decade-long wind bonanza.

Texas had more than 10.4 gigawatts of commercial wind turbines in operation that supplied 9.2 percent of the state’s electricity in 2012. On a windy evening in February of this year, wind generation supplied a record 28 percent of electricity used in the three-quarters of the state managed by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), which operates the state’s grid and manages its deregulated electricity market.

Despite that, Texas—one of the few states in the country with growing electricity demand—faces generation capacity shortages.

On Wednesday, ERCOT confirmed its earlier prediction of an abnormally hot summer, with electricity demand likely to break a record set in August 2011, and edging uncomfortably close to total available generation. The ERCOT asks people to conserve power when the grid is nearing its limit, and again faces “the possibility of rotating outages if needed to protect the grid” in extreme conditions, ERCOT executive advisor Kent Saathoff said in a statement.

Solar could help with that, advocates say. … Next Page »

Benjamin Romano is editor of Xconomy Seattle. Email him at bromano [at] xconomy.com. Follow @bromano

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