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Solar Plant Planned for West Texas

An Arizona-based company plans to build a 22-megawatt solar plant in West Texas. When it's up and running — officials say the plant could be online as soon as June — it will rank among the state's largest.

The Webberville Solar Project near Austin.

It’s not always sunny in West Texas, but when it is, it can be scorching.

An Arizona-based company is looking to tap those intense rays in the windy, oil-rich region as it plans a new solar power plant expected to rank among the biggest in Texas.

The firm, First Solar, will build and operate a 22-megawatt solar plant west of Fort Stockton in Pecos County, it announced Wednesday morning. First Solar will break ground on the Barilla Solar Project this week, the company said, with the plant expected to go online as early as June.

The project will sit on nearly 200 acres of land, enough to allow the company — if successful — to add more capacity. 

“This is an important step forward in our efforts to establish West Texas as a center for renewable energy,” Pecos County Judge Joe Shuster said in a statement. “We are not resting on our legacy of leadership in oil and gas. We welcome solar as the next new component in our portfolio of energy resources.”

With the capacity to power about 2,000 homes, Barilla won’t be the largest solar project in Texas. CPS Energy's Alamo project in San Antonio (41 megawatts, with the plans for additional plants that would total 400 megawatts) and Austin Energy’s 30-megawatt Webberville facility have it beat.

Unique about the Barilla project, however, is that its developers are forging ahead without signing a power purchase agreement, which would guarantee a buyer for its energy. Though First Solar may eventually ink such a deal, its representatives said they feel confident that their solar energy can compete by itself with other fuels on the open market.

“There’s immense solar resources in West Texas, and it really is a good deal for a utility-scale project,” Steve Krum, a spokesman for First Solar, said in an interview. “This can be part of the regular mix of generation,” he added.

Texas, with its long-stretching boundaries and ample solar radiation, leads the nation by far in solar energy potential. Much of that resource is in West Texas, which sees 75 percent more direct solar radiation than East Texas, according to the State Energy Conservation Office.

But the industry has struggled to get off the ground in the state. Solar energy makes up a miniscule fraction of Texas' energy portfolio, and compared with other states, Texas ranks just sixth in installed capacity, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. That’s largely because Texas officials have not implemented the same incentives for solar seen elsewhere, solar advocates say. 

Officials at First Solar, however, say they see plenty to like in Texas beyond its rich solar resources. That includes the state’s buildup of transmission infrastructure — such as the state’s new west-to-east CREZ power lines — that helps deliver energy to the large cities that demand it. And another factor helps, the company says: Texas’ hands-off regulatory climate.

“It’s an opportunity for us to do it in a more expedited way,” Krum said.

But even more important, said Kathryn Arbeit, director of business development at First Solar, is Texas’ rapid growth, which signals that the state will stay thirsty for power.

“Texas has the real need for electricity,” she said. 

As state officials wrangle over how to meet those needs, Arbeit said solar energy can help out — if just a bit, particularly on the hottest days, when Texans blast air conditioners. That’s when solar energy, an intermittent fuel, ramps up.  

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