"West Texas Solar Plant Comes Online" was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.
Less than eight months after breaking ground, the company constructing one of the state’s largest solar plants says it has begun harnessing West Texas’ intense rays.
First Solar, based in Arizona, announced Thursday that it had completed the first phase of its Barilla Solar Project, adding about 18 megawatts of solar capacity to Texas’ electric grid. The company expects to have a total of 30 megawatts installed by the end of the year, said Colin Meehan, its director of regulatory affairs.
On average, one megawatt-hour of solar energy can heat and cool as many as 100 Texas homes for an hour during the hottest summer days. During average temperatures, it can power many times more.
The 200-acre project sits in Pecos County, part of the Permian Basin, a region better known for its prolific oil production.
“Projects like this bring good jobs to the local economy, while diversifying our energy sources," state Sen. Carlos Uresti, D-San Antonio, said in a statement.
Joe Shuster, the Pecos County judge, said he hopes folks will one day call his slice of the region the “Texas solar patch.”
Barilla is not the largest solar project in Texas. CPS Energy's Alamo project in San Antonio (41 megawatts, with plans for additional plants that would total 400 megawatts) and Austin Energy’s 30-megawatt Webberville facility have it beat. And last May, Austin Energy signed a deal with a California company to build a 150-megawatt solar farm somewhere in West Texas.
But the Barilla project is unique in Texas because its developers – confident that their electricity can compete on the open market – have forged ahead without signing a power purchase agreement, which would guarantee a buyer for their energy.
Texas, because of its size and intense radiation, leads the nation in solar energy potential. Much of that resource is in the state's western half, according to the State Energy Conservation Office. The industry has long struggled to get a foothold in the state, as policymakers have provided fewer incentives than other states, and solar energy currently makes up a tiny fraction of Texas' energy portfolio.
But improving technology has driven down the price of solar power, making it more competitive with other resources – even without incentives, developers say. And West Texas is a particularly attractive location for solar plants because of its wide-open spaces and proximity to power lines. The region’s transmission structure has been bolstered by the $7 billion Competitive Renewable Energy Zone project, built to send wind power from the west to Texas’ growing cities in the east.
“It’s just like any other resource rush,” Meehan said. “We’re going to see something like we saw with wind.”
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to state Sen. Carlos Uresti, D-San Antonio, as state Rep. Carlos Uresti.
Disclosure: CPS Energy is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Texas Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.