Here is a crazy fact for Texans to ponder as they enter the bright, sunny, brutally hot, and humid days of July and August:
According to a variety of sources, the massive southern sunshine that falls on Texas in one month contains more energy than all of the oil that has ever been pumped in the Lone Star State.
Holy solar eclipse Batman!
Is that true?
Apparently so. In fact, Texas has the largest solar potential of any state in the country but it lags far behind others in actually producing solar power.
This begins a series of posts looking at solar power in Texas as homeowners in Arlington, Fort Worth, Dallas and elsewhere in the Lone Star State have expressed interest in it, what it’s all about, and it’s future as a viable renewable energy source.
Renewable Energy in Texas
Because homeowners in Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas are interested in saving money on their monthly energy bill, in conserving energy when they can, and in becoming more energy efficient, we recently took at look at Texas’ renewable energy efforts.
Our post concentrated more on Texas’ wind energy capacity and progress than solar because, well, the state is much further along with wind than sun.
Here is how Texas ranks in renewable energy efforts, keeping in mind that the state is also the top producer of oil and natural gas:
- No. 1 in wind energy capacity
- No. 1 in wind energy-related manufacturing and services
- No. 1 in wind industry employment and service
- No. 2 in total renewable energy employment and service
- No. 1 in biodiesel production
- No. 4 in clean energy-related patents
Hmmm. Texas has cracked the Top 10 in solar-related manufacturing and services but it’s no where near its customary No. 1 or 2 position in the energy rankings.
Texas, however, is No. 1 in solar potential.
What’s up with that?
Texas’ wind generation is 12 times larger in 2011 than 2002. Wind’s share of the Texas Interconnection Region’s electric power generation was 19.7 percent at the end of 2013. Wind now comprises more than three-quarters of Texas’ renewable energy usage.
Texas Solar Development
But solar development lags far behind wind energy in Texas. Just drive through West Texas to see all the “wind farms” in operation, spinning its blades, generating energy, and placing it on The Grid for homeowners and businesses to use in cities such as Arlington, Fort Worth, Dallas, Austin, Houston, and San Antonio. It’s not a huge amount of energy, truth be told, but it’s a promising start.
You’d think Texas would be at the forefront of solar energy development and production. It’s the largest state land mass-wise, meaning there is plenty of wide open spaces — not to mention sunshine across the vast state — for “sun farms” to operate and generate at least some energy.
The U.S. Department of Energy notes that Texas is home to a full 20 percent of the total U.S. potential for concentrated solar power generation and service, more than any other state.
Why is Texas So Awful at Producing Solar Power?
Only a small percentage of that solar potential, however, has been exploited. Cities such as Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas are largely shut out of solar, unless it’s at the private sector, while cities such as San Antonio and Austin are making some headway.
The Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) notes that Texas has only about 200 megawatts worth of solar-power panels installed — less than New Jersey, Massachusetts, and New York.
Why is Texas so terrible at producing solar power?
Is it opposition from the oil and natural gas industries?
Is it because of a lack of investors and innovators?
It’s certainly not because of a lack of interest among consumers. Homeowners in Arlington, Fort Worth, Dallas and throughout Texas are beginning to express interest in solar power and what it might be able to do for them.
Texas’ solar sector is floundering for a variety of reasons. Chief among them are policy choices and economic forces that have stunted solar’s growth thus far in the state.
Ten years ago policies supporting renewable energy were largely viewed through investments. Renewable energy had significant state-level success in attracting bipartisan support. But after a congressional struggle over the cap-and-trade climate bills, support in renewable energy was increasingly viewed as a political statement.
In Texas, a deeply red, conservative, and Republican state, there’s little appetite for restructuring its energy policies to find new support for solar.
Ironically, Texas is one of 29 states with a renewable-energy standard, which is a goal for generating a certain amount of power from sources like wind, solar, and other fossil-fuel alternatives.
When the standard was signed into law in 1999 it called for 2,000 megawatts of additional power generation to be brought online within a decade.
The rub: There was no specific requirement for solar power. Without that requirement, developers have overwhelmingly chose wind energy and its service segment over solar because investors are more familiar with it, it requires lower front-end costs, and it’s viewed as less risky.
Take a back seat solar.
Texas also lacks “net-metering,” a policy that has helped solar flourish in other states. Net-metering allows residential solar customers to earn full retail credit for excess electricity they sell back to the grid. It’s a policy in 43 states but not Texas.
Aside from politics, solar in Texas is also hurt by typically cheap electricity (compared with other states) and a mature service and support industry, making it hard for any solar-producing power plant to turn a profit, especially one with high up-front costs like those for a solar farm (which has almost no service industry to help support adoption).
The fracking boom also has stiffened competition for solar energy as the supply glut and resulting price dip in fuel prices has made natural-gas power plants a more attractive option.
Solar advocates insist that, with the right policies, solar energy has strong potential in Texas. It certainly has interest among curious homeowners in Arlington, Fort Worth, Dallas, and residents elsewhere in the Lone Star State who want to become more energy efficient and save money on their monthly energy bill.
Cities such as San Antonio and, to a lesser extent, Austin are having success with solar. San Antonio has 90 megawatts of utility-scale solar online and the service industry to support it, with another 15 megawatts from direct generation. The utility CPS Energy estimates there’s another 385 megawatts coming online over the next two to three years. That’s enough to rank San Antonio sixth nationwide in solar capacity.
Austin has just 16 megawatts online, but it’s something.
What sets San Antonio and Austin apart from other cities in Texas is their municipal utilities have more freedom to set independent renewable goals and offer rebates. Arlington, Fort Worth, Dallas, and Houston are more handicapped.
Ultimately, solar’s best hope in Texas will come not from policy but from technology.
The cost of solar panels is falling rapidly as scientists develop more efficient manufacturing models and cheaper Chinese equipment hits the market. Texas also has considerable public and private solar research efforts under way in the state.
Ultimately, as often happens in the Internet Age, technology and innovation force change. Even in Texas, it’s difficult to argue with a lower price tag.