A Look to the Future at Texas’ Largest Solar Farm

Mose Buchele / StateImpact Texas

The 380 acre Webberville Solar Farm outside of Austin will power 5000 homes.

A ribbon-cutting ceremony Friday marked the official opening of the Webberville Solar Farm, an array of 127,000 solar panels set to provide enough electricity to power 5,000 homes in the Austin area. The farm will be the largest of its kind in Texas, and is the largest solar project of any public power utility in the United States, according to Austin Energy CEO Larry Weiss.

Politicians, green energy advocates and industry representatives were on hand, hoping the event would showcase the promise of renewable energy after a turbulent year for the solar industry.

“Last year was a contraction year. [Our company] actually grew, but the industry itself had to go through a contraction and some of the weaker players didn’t survive,” Mark Menedenhall, GM of Sun Edison told StateImpact Texas. Sun Edison is the company contracted by the City of Austin to build the solar farm.

Mendenhall said the future of solar was bright, in part due to projects like the Webberville Farm.

“As more and more solar plants are deployed they’re being viewed as less risky,” he said.

Less risk means solar power investors are demanding a smaller return on investment.

“So that also reduces the cost of capital.” Mendenhall said. “All these factors together are what’s driving this proven technology to continue to reduced the cost per watt.”

Mendenhall expects the price of solar electricity per watt to reach parity with the cost of electricity generated by fossil fuels within a two years.

Others weren’t so optimistic.

Chasing a Moving Target

When asked by StateImpact Texas about solar’s competitiveness with other forms of electric generation, H.B. “Tripp” Doggett, President of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) said he wasn’t sure when solar would become competitive.

One reason it’s hard to speculate is that solar electricity generators are chasing a moving target. The cost of solar electricity is falling year by year, but the cost of other forms of electricity has fallen as well. Power plants powered by natural gas, for example, might drop their prices lower if they find themselves threatened by a burgeoning solar industry.

“Competition between generation units with one another, that competition tends to drive the price downward and so that could have had some impact [on growth of solar in Texas], Doggett said.

ERCOT is projecting a growing need for energy in the state in the coming years, and announced last December that fewer electricity projects will be coming online than it expected. That’s prompted fears of more rolling blackouts like the ones Texas saw last winter.

When asked about the solar farm’s contribution towards keeping Texas blackout-free, Doggett was circumspect.

“Every little bit helps, this is not a tremendous magnitude of additional megawatts, but every little

Mose Buchele / StateImpact Texas

Trip Doggett is the President of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas

bit helps,” said Doggett. “We’re glad to have this as a very large facility, as solar farms go. Its not equivalent to a large new fossil-fired plant but we certainly need all of the additional generation we can get.”

One benefit of the solar farm is that it will generate that power at exactly the time it is most needed.

Solar produces the most electricity during hot, sunny weather — times of peak demand — said Mathew Weldon of Solar Austin, a local nonprofit that promotes renewable energy.

Weldon said the real benefit of solar, the fact that it comes free of polluting emissions,  should be taken into account when consumers consider the price competitiveness of energy sources.

“As we’re forced to recognize some of the negative externality costs associated with fossils fuels, the inherent value of solar will be recognized also and so the projects will become more common,” Weldon said.

Comments

  • Anonymous

    Solar panels will never be competitive with natural gas or oil as long as emitting carbon dioxide is free of charge. This is why we need a cap-and-trade system, to incorporate carbon dioxide emission into the cost of carbon-based power generation in a market-based way. 

    • Dale

      Amen, Amen, Amen.  However, as long as Oil and Gas pour money into advertisements, legislators pockets and has no real cost to their behavior, cap and trade or carbon tax may be a long time coming.

  • Judith Sheehan1

    Solar panels could be baseload ready tomorrow davids12.  We need to ‘ Henry Ford’  this sustainable, planet-saving technology – iron out the gliches  and release this totally renewable technology which will provide clean jobs; clean money; clean futures.  
    No change = Stephen Hawking’s prediction that we will continue to Venus (sulphuric acid rain) this increasingly fragile planet earth, and that it will become inhabitable in 1000 years (maximum).  All we have to do is keep on keeping on (giving in to greed and cowardice).  

  • http://twitter.com/jpnovak1 JP Novak

    …can the city of Austin commit to Distributed Generation Austin Solar Panel projects?  City Council will here debates on the Green Energy topic from the local solar industry including our company Hill Country Ecopower http://www.hcecopower.com.  Solar Power is such a great source of electricity, it’s renewable, distributed and reliable.  Unfortunately most conservatives aren’t making the environmental and geo-political costs a part of their equation on the ROI calculation.  San Antonio has made the committment to Solar Power projects, let’s support Austin City Council to do the same.
     
    JP Novak
    Hill Country Ecopower

  • Steven L. Jones

    FreshWater Unlimited, Inc. is preparing a proposal to the Texas Water Development Board to bring 4 cents per kilowatt solar thermal power to Texas in a big way.  Also being proposed in the same process is the desalination of one billion gallons of water in the condensed steam that powers the turbine generators.  10,000 megawatts of electricity and 1,000,000,000 gallons of water daily might be a good start to get Texas through for the next 40 years.  At this large scale electricity can be sold to utilities as low as 4 cents per kilowatt.  Lets hope the Texas Water Development Board agrees.
    Steven L. Jones, V.P.
    FreshWater Unlimited, Inc.
    email:  watermakerjones@gmail.com 

  • Wdoug62

    Solar generation is currently good only to supplement fossil fuel generation during peak periods.  It is not capable of producing power 24 hrs per day.   That alone will hold back its complete replacement of fossil or nuclear power.  Cap and trade and all the rest will not make any difference other than to run up the price of power.

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