Advocates say Texas is squandering its sunshine

Source: Edward Klump, E&E reporter • Posted: Friday, September 11, 2015

Texas earned a top 10 ranking in cumulative U.S. solar power capacity through 2014, but the state didn’t crack the top 20 in a per-capita calculation, according to a new study.

The report, written by representatives of the Frontier Group and Environment America Research and Policy Center, was released last week and touted in the Lone Star State by Environment Texas.

Texas installed about 129 megawatts of solar capacity last year, the study showed. The state’s cumulative capacity of 330 MW at the close of 2014 was good for No. 10 in the country, but Texas was dwarfed by the reported 9,977 MW in California, 2,067 MW in Arizona and 1,451 MW in New Jersey.

“We have tremendous potential in Texas — plenty of sunshine — but what we’re lacking is a commitment to clean energy policies,” said Anne Clark, a campaign organizer with Environment Texas.

The report suggested Texas’ solar growth has occurred “in spite of, not because of, state leadership.” It said the state “lacks critical solar policies like statewide net metering, strong interconnection standards, or financial incentives.”

At the end of 2014, Texas was No. 22 in cumulative solar capacity per capita.

Texas’ initial solar push has relied in part on San Antonio and Austin — two cities with municipal electric utilities. CPS Energy in San Antonio and Austin Energy have pursued power from utility-scale solar projects in Texas while also seeking ways to allow customers to have solar panels on their homes.

In fact, about a third of Texas’ solar capacity was in the city limits of Austin or San Antonio at the end of 2014, according to the new report.

But Clark said a big question looms: “Is San Antonio going to continue to go above and beyond or rest on their laurels and go about business as usual?”

San Antonio is slated to see a rebate for newly installed systems end early next year, while other pilot programs are now being rolled out, according to Raiford Smith, a vice president of corporate development and planning at CPS Energy.

The new choices on the retail level should help expand the reach of solar, given financial and home configuration issues for some customers, said Smith, who indicated early interest has been strong.

Seeking to ‘alter the landscape’

Smith said one new program will allow customers to participate in community solar. Another will pay customers for hosting solar panels.

“We think that these two programs are going to dramatically alter the landscape of solar here in San Antonio,” Smith said, referring to retail solar numbers. “First off, the existing solar capacity that gets installed is around 6 MW a year here in San Antonio, and these programs combined are about 11 MW.”

While change can raise concerns, Smith said, “this is just another one of those inflection points.”

He said the state has enormous solar potential, and a key question is: “Can regulators and utilities and marketers find the right offer structure that makes … economic sense for the consumer, operational sense for the grid and financial sense for the company that offers it?”

That’s the “secret sauce” San Antonio and others have pursued, Smith said.

Still, some interests raised questions about the direction of solar programs in San Antonio, as noted earlier this year by The Rivard Report.

Clark said Environment Texas was in favor of looking at new ideas but added that the existing solar rebate program has been successful.

“We definitely support new, innovative solar programs, we just also support continuing programs that have worked,” she said.

Clark said there’s still potential for cities such as Houston and Dallas to do more with solar, even though they don’t have municipal electric utilities. Those areas largely operate in Texas’ competitive electric retail and wholesale markets.

City solar goals could help foster growth in areas such as local or rooftop solar, according to Clark.

“I think a great start would be getting more solar on municipal buildings,” she said.

More broadly, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, the state’s main grid operator, said in 2014 that utility-scale solar could exceed 10,000 MW by 2029 using a current trends scenario and possibly top 16,000 MW under a stringent environmental setup.

Charlie Hemmeline, executive director of the Texas Solar Power Association, said solar is a good match for the needs of Texas and its growing population.

“We’re expanding rapidly now, and we have such a large potential here in the state,” Hemmeline said.