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The Birthplace Of Big Oil Is About To Get Its Biggest Solar Plant Yet

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"The Birthplace Of Big Oil Is About To Get Its Biggest Solar Plant Yet"

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While the state has a meager showing for solar capacity so far, the start of construction on Texas’ biggest solar plant could mark a turnaround.

According to a 2012 report from the Department of Energy, Texas has one of the highest potentials for solar capacity — including rooftop arrays, utility-scale arrays, and concentrated solar power — of any state in the country. But with just 201 megawatts of solar as of 2013, Texas ranks 13th among the states for total installed capacity — and it’s using a minuscule 0.7 percent of its potential.

Compare that to California, which boasts 5,660 megawatts of installed capacity, which takes up over six percent of its reported potential, and ranks the state first in the nation.

But Fuel Fix also reported on Thursday that the San Francisco firm Recurrent Energy just landed a contract that would increase Texas’ capacity by over 50 percent, with a 150 megawatt installation in West Texas. Construction is occurring at the behest of Austin Energy — one of the largest city-owned utilities in the country — and should be completed by 2016. The project will be worth $525 million and will cover 1,000 acres of land.

However, as National Journal points out, Texas remains far from meeting its full solar potential, thanks to a string of policy decisions that have left the state lagging behind its neighbors.

Like 29 other states, Texas has passed a renewable portfolio standard (RPS) — a mandate that a certain portion of its electricity come from renewable sources — the law makes no specific provision for how much should come from solar. As a result, developers have filled up most of the mandate with wind.

But what Texas lacks entirely is a “net-metering” law, a provision that 43 other states have passed some form of, and which allows individuals who produce their own solar power to sell the excess back to the grid and thus reduce their electric bill. Right now most electric utilities operate on a highly regulated one-way model in which the utility sells power and customers buy it. Net metering moves the grid a bit closer to an actual market, in which many producers of electricity both large and small can sell to everyone else who’s using power. Texas law allows individual utilities to voluntarily adopt net metering standards, but there is no uniform and state-wide policy.

As a result, most of the action in Texas solar power is occurring at the municipal level.

The San Antonio area has installed 90 megawatts of utility-scale solar and 15 megawatts of direct generation, with another 385 megawatts expected over the next few years, ranking it sixth amongst cities nationwide. Austin itself has 16 megawatts of capacity online, and utilities in both cities have taken up the opportunity to voluntarily begin their own forms of net-metering.

“We have assumed that we had to develop a strategy that did not rely on state support,” Lanny Sinkin, the executive director of Solar San Antonio, told National Journal.

That should become easier as technology continues to drive down the price of solar, making the power source more attractive on the market even without any policy assists. Solar power has boomed in America, mirroring worldwide growth fueled by demand in China. That’s encouraged investment and further drops in prices. Recurrent Chief Executive Arno Harris pointed out to fuel fix that the manufacturing costs of solar panels dropped between 60 and 70 percent in recent years.

“We’re in the third generation for large-scale build outs” of solar technology, Harris said. “We’ve learned a lot about how to be more efficient.”

In fact, as of mid 2013, installation prices for solar power were lower in Texas than anywhere else in the country. And according to Fuel Fix, Austin, Texas is seeing offers for utility-scale solar power deals as low as five cents per kilowatt hour.

“[Texas' state government] was just never going to come and develop the strategy for how to get it,” said Sinkin. “Now I think that with the rapid expansion of solar in Texas, there’s going to be more and more political support.”

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