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Energy and Environment Reporting for Texas

What Spain Can Teach Texas About Solar Energy

About an hour’s drive outside of Sevilla, Spain’s old city, past grazing black-footed pigs and olive orchards, sits the Abengoa Solucar complex, and it’s truly a sight: Imagine cresting a hill and then all of the sudden seeing several large towers, over 500 feet high, with hundreds of beams of light striking them — solar rays from an army of mirrors arrayed in a circle on the ground below. They’re called heliostats.

“These heliostats are reflecting solar radiation toward the receiver that we have at the top of the tower,” says Valerio Fernandez, manager of the complex. The rays from the heliostats strike the top of the towers, like hundreds of magnifying glasses focused on one point in mid-air. The top of the tower shines so bright, you can’t look at it without sunglasses.

Once the solar radiation gets to the top of the tower, it’s used to heat up water. And it’s at this step that innovation turns to a technology that’s been around for well over a century: turbine technology. The solar radiation creates heat, that heats up water, which creates steam, which moves the tubines, which generates energy.

In the summer, there’s enough sun for 12, sometimes 13 hours of energy that can power up to 100,000 homes. And the towers can keep providing solar energy for several hours after the sun goes down, by heating and pressurizing steam for later.

Valerio Fernandez manages the Abengoa Solucar solar complex outside of Sevilla, Spain.

Valerio Fernandez manages the Abengoa Solucar solar complex outside of Sevilla, Spain.

It’s not just here in Sevilla where solar has taken off. Spain is one of the largest producers of solar technology in the world. It’s second only to Germany for solar power generation in Europe. There are two reasons why Spain has become a solar king.

“One is they have a lot of solar resources. They have a lot of photons. It’s a sunny country,” says Michael Webber, Deputy Director of the Energy Institute at the University of Texas at Austin. ”And the second is through a big policy push.”

Starting in the mid-2000s, Spain heavily subsidized solar energy and passed policies removing barriers for large-scale projects.

“A lot of people would criticize them for that and say they went overboard. They pushed the subsidies too far, too fast,” says Webber.

Spain, in essence, took a gamble. For a while, Spain was the world leader when it came to solar energy, installing more and coming up with innovative ways to harness the sun. But in recent years that wave has crested.

“There are two sayings to keep in mind as a philosophy for life,” says Webber. “The first is, the early bird gets the worm. The other is the second mouse gets the cheese. The first mouse being slaughtered by the mouse trap.”

When it comes to solar, Webber says, Spain was the first mouse.

“There’s a penalty for being first to market. Because you buy the most expensive forms of solar. And you might pick the wrong technology,” Webber says.

And based on the current solar market, one could argue Spain picked the wrong technology. Prices for solar panels, which generate electricity directly from the sunlight, have plummeted, mostly thanks to unprecedented production in China.

But the price for Spain’s solar thermal technology that uses mirrors hasn’t fallen much. That’s why as Texas makes its own solar push, solar towers like the ones Spain aren’t likely to play a role. Instead, expect vast solar farms with photovoltaic panels stretching out across the state’s abundant, flat and cheap land. Webber says the state is also very unlikely to repeat the policies of heavy incentives and subsidies that Spain did.

“It actually bankrupted the country a little bit,” says Webber. “So they’ve dialed back on the subsidies.”

Texas has growing demand, Webber says, with more people moving here every day. And the peak of that demand — hot, sunny summer afternoons — is when solar could really shine.

“So the conditions are right for solar in Texas,” he says. “I expect Texas to be the next big solar market in the world.”

Right now, Texas is barely in top ten in the nation for solar, but Webber predicts the state will be number one “in a handful of years.”

It’s getting easier to see how that prediction could come true. While many Texans rooftops will look the same, energy companies are likely to move forward with large-scale solar farms, Webber says. This summer, Austin Energy signed a record deal for solar. The deal guarantees clean power from the sun at a prices cheaper than fossil fuels.

This is the first in a three-part series on renewable energy and sustainability in Europe and its lessons for Texas. This series was made possible by a Energy & Climate Media Fellowship with the Heinrich Böll Foundation of North America.

Part Two: How Denmark and Texas Became Wind Energy Kings

Part Three: Copenhagen Turns to Two Wheels and Takes Off

Comments

  • LuapLeiht1

    Texas is already the national leader in wind technology. In general, it is generated farther out in west Texas where it is not needed. Transmission losses and the intermittent nature of this power causes havoc on the grid and require back-up generation capacity.

    I’m not saying that renewables are bad. I’m just saying that they are not wholly good.

    • Leslie Graham

      “I’m not saying that renewables are bad…”

      But you ARE lying.

    • Gene_Frenkle

      EVs will be a boon for wind power. The West Texas wind blows mostly at night and that is when EVs will be plugged in. The next Volt will be a very important vehicle and I believe it will reduce costs, increase performance, improve utility enough to make it popular. Each Volt will need 10 kWh a night of electricity and the future Tesla 3 will probably need 15 kWh a night. The Tesla will need a more powerful internet connected home charger that will help stabilize the grid at night.

      • LuapLeiht1

        Range is kinda important in Texas. EVs are horrible for that.

        As far as EVs being a boon for wind blowing at night…that is nonsense. Power is most needed during on-peak hours 7AM-10PM. Wind power works counter-cyclical to that.

        You have it backwards. Wind is boon for EVs since they could use the wasted power generated by wind. The fact they are still unpopular even with that advantage shows their impracticality at this time. Improve the battery storage and charging speed and we can talk again.

        Until then, the will be a toy of the rich (i.e. Tesla) and foolish subsidies for them should be killed.

        • Gene_Frenkle

          EVs are plugged in during off peak hours so that is why wind power compliments EVs. The biggest issue for EVs is cost and that is falling. The other major issue is the 400 mile trip on the interstate but that can be solved in several ways. So Tesla proves that EVs are superior to other cars based on factors that matter to car buyers.

    • CB

      Electrical transmission is from 95% to 98% efficient.

      Those are astronomically high numbers compared to almost any other physical process we might use to produce and distribute energy.

      You are correct that intermittent renewables like wind and solar PV require energy buffering. The solar thermal power in the article does not have that problem. It’s fully dispatchable, fully renewable power.

  • MidBosque

    The notion that wind generation in Texas “causes havoc on the grid” isn’t born out by either ERCOT’s system assessments, or the evaluations of consulting firms like The Brattle Group, or federal EIA analysis, and the reporting of State Impact Texas (which would have picked up on that I suspect). As for back-up, system reliability requires back-up of all generation, thermal included. I point you to a cold February 2 of a few years back as case in point.

    To be clear with a summary line, I’m just saying to LL that those assertions are not sourced, and they’re inaccurate.

    • centerroad

      You are correct, and note that the liar did not respond. Teaching the ignorant is tough when they lie then cut and run back to their oil slick websites.

      • Leslie Graham

        Yep – same old hit and run concern trolling.
        You can spot them a mile off.

  • Ray Boggs

    When investing in solar energy for your home, it is wise to install the latest aesthetically pleasing highest performance technology you can afford. The key reason for this is the fact that the solar panels that you install today will probably be on your roof for the nest 25 to 30 years before they’ll need to be replaced.

    Installing solar panels that already have an outdated look or that offer poorer performance today, can have a negative impact on your home’s value in just a few short years after they’ve been installed.

    The solar panels that most of the solar lease and PPA companies are installing today have the same aluminum framed, boxy look that existed back in the mid 50′s when they were first introduced.

    Today, new, Gen 2, frameless, 1/4 inch thin, see through, glass on glass, higher performance designs are available that can make all the difference in the world when attempting to sell your home.

    These bifacial (double sided) solar panels actually produce extra power from their backside, from light that is reflected off the roof’s surface without taking up anymore space on your roof.

    The new 300 Watt, 60 cell solar panels that are used in Hyper X 2 solar systems offers a better PTC to STC ratio “Real World” performance according to the California Energy Commission’s performance rating listings than over 119 of SunPower’s solar panel models.

    And they offer a very high 94.3% PTC to STC performance ratio. They also offer a heat resistant -0.28%/degree C temperature coefficient for better performance in warm/hot climates. And a minus 60 degree C extreme cold temperature rating. And when it comes to aesthetics, nothing even comes close to Hyper X 2′s panel’s glass on glass, see through, frameless construction.

    With N-type mono-crystalline bifacial cells for double sided power production, up to a 22.% efficiency rating, superior aesthetics, and a price that outcompetes the solar lease and PPA company’s offerings, very few products on the market compares to Hyper X 2 Solar. http://vimeo.com/113178906

    • centerroad

      We’re starting to see these misleading adverts all over. From what I’ve read these double sided thin panels are very expensive and brittle, resulting in a lot of failures. Buyer beware.

      • Ron Winton

        Dream on centerroad. You’re just afraid of this new technology because what you’re offering can’t possibly compete. That’s too bad because they sell for far less than what you offer and their double glass construction versus your solar panel’s glass on plastic construction make them far stronger, giving them a 185 MPH wind rating and a 5,400 Pa snow load rating.

        In fact the the panels that are used in Hyper X 2 systems were tested at the University of Wisconsin’s Physical Sciences Laboratory and passed test conditions of extreme low temperatures necessary to be used at the IceCube Neutrino lab located at the South Pole. How’s that for tough centerroad ?

  • alpha2actual

    Texas is spending billions on projects that focus on wind energy rather than on conventional generation capacity. As Kate Galbraith of the Texas Tribune reported, the Texas Public Utility Commission is preparing the state’s ratepayers for higher prices. Consumers will soon be paying for new transmission lines that are being built solely so that the subsidy-dependent wind-energy profiteers can move electricity from their distant wind projects to consumers in urban areas.

    From the desk of Warren Buffett. “I will do anything that is basically covered by the law to reduce Berkshire’s tax rate,” he said. “For example, on wind energy, we get a tax credit if we build a lot of wind farms. That’s the only reason to build them. They don’t make sense without the tax credit.”

    “Think about that one. Mr. Buffett says it makes no economic sense to build wind farms without a tax credit, which he gladly uses to reduce his company’s tax payments to the Treasury. So political favors for the wind industry induce a leading U.S. company to misallocate its scarce investment dollars for an uneconomic purpose. Berkshire and its billionaire shareholders get a tax break and the feds get less revenue, which must be made up by raising tax rates on millions of other Americans who are much less well-heeled than Mr. Buffett”. Wall Street Journal, May 2014.

    • Bo Mara

      Fact Check. The transmission lines in West Texas are available to all energy producers, coal, nuclear, wind, solar whoever…. just like all the transmission lines in Texas. It is true that their construction was lobbied for, and will be primarily used by wind producers. But people getting their energy in West Texas from wind had to pay for the transmission lines in East Texas that are moving coal generated electricity. Seems like should be considered fair.

      People (like Kate Galbraith) who are incensed that solar or wind might get some preferential tax treatment ought to study oil depletion allowances, which allow oil companies to treat oil in the ground as capital equipment of all things.. and they can therefore reduce their taxes by claiming deductions for the fact that they are “depleting” the oil… kinda like depreciating equipment.

      If you want to remove tax credits on wind and solar, it seems fair that you would also want to remove depletion allowances from oil. However, capitalism never works that way. Greedy people and companies get in the way, and always want someone else to pay…. typically, the richer and more well heeled the person asking for other people to pay, the more likely they are to get their way. They just use part of their wealth to pay off politicians – usually conservative, but not always – to make sure they don’t pay, but rather let the poor bear the burden.

      Which is why Mitt R. could pay 14% effective tax rate on $14 million, while a $50K – $250K a year person with a salary will be paying on the order of 14% to 39% total federal taxes.

      I include payroll taxes (social security and medicare). Because people making less than about $110K, and receiving a paycheck instead of interest, dividends, and capital gains, which means most of us, don’t have the option to opt out.

      But hey, Mitt sent lots of American jobs overseas so his cronies could afford nicer digs in the Hamptons, and was “justly” rewarded for it. That Jesus magic underwear really works! I almost converted to Mormonism when I had a couple of bicylce riding representatives of Mormonism in my home preaching their mythology.

      But then they refused the beers I opened for them, so I had to drink both…. They never returned. Imagine that. If it is true that in Heaven there is no beer, I want no part of it.

  • Dani Grey

    Terrence, I think it’s pretty clear that solar is the future of energy. It’s getting more and more efficient, though it’s hard to say whether it’s better to diversify it and distribute it, or to simply condense it like a traditional power plant in one location. Since the sun isn’t always out, the power provided isn’t always the same. Still, it’s good to know that we’re moving in this direction.

    http://dfwsolarelectric.com

  • Kumar Vivek

    This style has navigated right into my heart.

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