Energy and Environment Reporting for Texas

Solar Stuggles to Shine in Deregulated Texas Electricity Market

Mose Buchele / StateImpact Texas

The Webberville Solar Project outside Austin is the largest in Texas

In such a sunny place as Texas, some people think it’s a real shame to waste all that solar energy. They point out the state ranks 13th in the nation for total solar power generation, behind such often gloomy places as New Jersey (#2) and New York (#11) according to the Solar Energy Industries Association.

What’s more, Shell just predicted that solar might be the top energy source globally by 2070.

“It is a waste.Texas has the best potential in the country and we’re just falling behind,” says Luke Metzger. His group, Environment Texas, found that some of the state’s only bright spots for solar are Austin and San Antonio. The two cities had four times more solar power than the rest of Texas combined. He says it’s no coincidence those are the the two biggest cities in the state that are not in the deregulated market for electricity.

Luke Metzger is founder of Environment Texas

Unlike in Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston where for-profit corporations provide power in a competitive market, Austin and San Antonio have city-owned, not-for-profit power companies.

“So they’re able to see the big picture and see how solar can actually save them money and actually makes sense,” says Metzger of the cities that own their own power plants and distribution grids which he says gives them a much longer-term outlook.

Contrast that with what Randle Taylor is going through. He wants to generate electricity by putting 1.5 million solar panels on ranch land in the Texas Panhandle. Taylor says he can’t fund the project without investors and he says they’re not willing to touch it unless he gets help from the state. And he says that’s not happening.

Dave Fehling / StateImpact

Randle Taylor heads White Camp Solar

“I can just say I’m hoping and praying for a good solution. It seems sometimes our pleas are falling on deaf ears,” Taylor told StateImpact Texas.

Taylor is talking about the Texas Public Utility Commission. The PUC has chosen not to enforce legislation from 2005 that sought to promote solar.

“If the statute’s not mandatory, I don’t know how we have the authority to make it mandatory,” said PUC Chairman Donna Nelson at a commission meeting last December. And in a letter last month to a state senator, Nelson argued that the statute’s goals for solar-generated electricity were simply targets, not mandates, and therefore would need clarification by the legislature before the PUC would take any action.

Courtesy Texas PUC

Donna Nelson is chairman of the Texas PUC

Randle Taylor, the solar developer, says that means that in the deregulated electricity market, he can’t guarantee investors that his solar power will bring a price that in the long term would ensure profitability. There are several bills before the current Texas legislature to encourage solar, including HB 303. There’s another bill, though, that is aimed at eliminating those incentives for renewable energy called the renewable portfolio standard.

Robert Webb, an attorney in Austin who works on renewable energy projects, including the one Taylor is proposing, says the projects make sense for Texas now more than ever considering the predictions of how the state could soon face electricity shortages.

“Our problem is we’re playing with fire. We’re getting closer and closer to a real problem,” Webb told StateImpact Texas.


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