Solar Power Can Aid Strained Texas Grid, Officials Say

Solar power can play a role in aiding Texas’ strained electric grid, industry officials and regulators said Tuesday at a meeting devoted to solar power in San Antonio.

“Solar will help ERCOT, will help in our resource adequacy challenge,” Public Utility Commissioner Rolando Pablos of San Antonio said at the conference, which was convened by the nonprofit Solar San Antonio. He was referring to the peak-time pressures on the Texas power grid, when power demand threatens to exceed supply.

Currently only a tiny fraction of Texas’ power comes from the sun, and the state ranks well behind California and other sunny states in development of the resource. The main downsides of solar power are that it is expensive (despite recent solar-panel price drops) and intermittent, because it does not produce power at night.

Solar advocates argue that the sun’s rays offer an emissions-free electricity source that revs up just when Texas needs power the most — for example, the late summer afternoons when air conditioners are running full-blast. Solar panels also require little water, aside from being washed once or twice a year — a key advantage in the drought-prone state.

Texas possesses about 14 percent of the nation’s solar-power potential, according to Emily Duncan, the manager of government affairs for the Solar Energy Industries Association, who added that 255 solar companies are based in the state.

Texas lawmakers have been reluctant to offer incentives for solar: a proposal for a renewable energy mandate aimed at nonwind sources and another for a rebate for solar power died in the Legislature last year.

But Pablos noted that the Public Utility Commission has undertaken some measures, with direction from the Legislature, to aid solar power. One example is the construction of nearly $7 billion in transmission lines to ferry power from West Texas to points east. The lines, known as Competitive Renewable Energy Zones, or CREZ, are built mostly to move wind power, but because West Texas is sunny as well as windy, electricity generated form the sun can in theory move along those lines, too. The commission has also made it easier for solar-leasing models to take root in Texas, Pablos said — a “very important” move, said Russel Smith, the executive director of the Texas Renewable Energy Industries Association.

Duncan, of the solar trade group, said that the solar industry backs the PUC’s recent moves to raise a cap on wholesale prices on the Texas electric market. Solar produces a large amount of power at peak times, when wholesale power prices often shoot up, so it can potentially benefit considerably from the move.

Pablos said that in the near term, the most important type of solar developments for Texas was large-scale installations, such as concentrating solar reflectors, as opposed to smaller, rooftop-size solar panel installations. Such large-scale solar, he said, is “the fastest way to ramp up.”

The big concentrating solar projects can be built in about six months — far faster than the five years or so that a fossil fuel power plant may need, according to another speaker, Chris Eugster, the chief sustainability officer for the San Antonio utility CPS Energy. (However, one large-scale solar project proposed for West Texas stalled a few years ago.)

CPS is seen as a national leader in solar power, and recently signed an agreement to buy 400 megawatts of power from future Texas solar arrays. By 2020, solar is projected to provide about 2 percent of San Antonio’s power, according to Chris Eugster, the chief sustainability officer with CPS — as opposed to 0.03 percent in 2010. 

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