Austin eyes West Texas for solar power

Nov. 27, 2011

By Marty Toohey
Austin Americam Statesman

Austin Energy, hoping to add significantly more solar power over the next decade but leery of relying primarily on rooftops, is looking west.

The city-owned electric company could build up to three large solar arrays on West Texas land it owns or has under contract, thereby increasing its supply of solar power about eightfold, according to a recent report on the utility’s solar plans.

The report came at the request of the City Council, which wanted to see how solar could fit into a larger plan for starting to wean Austin off of coal power during the next decade and toward sources that do not contribute to global climate change.

None of the steps outlined in the report is certain to happen, said Michael Osborne, author of the report and a special assistant to Austin Energy’s general manager.

But, Osborne said, "this is one way to get (to the city’s goals) using the resources and programs we currently have."

Solar is now Austin’s most expensive source of electricity — and, despite the attention it receives in city policy discussions, represents a negligible amount of the city’s roughly 2,800 megawatts of generating capacity. Austin largely has relied on wind to satisfy its renewable goals, signing three deals this year alone for 491 megawatts of coastal wind. But the report strikes a mostly optimistic tone about solar’s long-term potential, noting that panel prices are dropping, and linking municipal projects to Austin’s potential as a research and manufacturing hub.

The report comes just weeks before the expected opening of a solar array east of Austin. The Webberville facility will be the state’s largest and provide 30 megawatts of generating capacity.

It is the type of solar project Austin Energy is most bullish about.

Electricity from the Webberville project will cost about 16.5 cents per kilowatt-hour over the next 25 years under the contract signed in 2009, about four times the cost of natural gas and the recent coastal wind purchases. Solar power now runs as low as 10 cents per kilowatt-hour, and by 2015 it could be as low as 7 cents, according to the report.

Osborne said Austin Energy expects to make most of its solar purchases toward the end of the decade, when prices will presumably be lower. But he said that a combination of expiring federal subsidies, new state transmission lines and dropping prices might make a major purchase possible in 2014 or 2015.

West Texas arrays would get about 30 percent more sunshine than rooftop arrays in the Austin area, and the rays would be more intense. That means panels there would have roughly twice the output, according to Osborne’s report.

The West Texas solar facilities discussed in the report would be near Toyah, Pecos and Saragosa. The sites could produce a combined output of up to 280 megawatts, according to the report.

Austin Energy does not plan to cut the nearly $4 million it spends annually for rooftop solar subsidies. Still, rooftop solar "is the most expensive, difficult to service, and problematic in financial terms for the utility," the report states. Although rooftop solar "is generally recognized to be the ultimate solution as solar modules give way to solar glazings, solar roofs, and other building integrated products \u2026 the challenge for the city is to provide enough incentives for the distributed solar generation industry to develop and mature and become self sustaining."

Austin now has about 5 megawatts of rooftop solar capacity.

The report also mentions the possibility of small to medium-size arrays intended to power a neighborhood. Residents would split the construction and maintenance costs of the array.

But that idea faces legal and technical hurdles, according to the report.

mtoohey(at); 445-3673

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