Texas, once left in the shade, plans major moves into solar 

Source: Daniel Cusick, E&E reporter • Posted: Friday, April 10, 2015

Austin Energy, the municipally owned utility providing power to roughly 1 million people in the Texas capital, will add 600 megawatts of solar to its generation portfolio by as soon as 2017.

Under a request for proposal announced yesterday, Austin Energy said it would consider acquiring the solar power under power purchase agreements with independent solar firms, or it could own the solar capacity outright.

All of the new solar energy must be produced within the Electric Reliability Council of Texas territory, officials said, and proposals are due by May 15.

Officials said the new solar power will account for a “major component” of Austin Energy’s recently adopted Resource, Generation and Climate Protection Plan, which calls for meeting 55 percent of all delivered electricity using renewable resources by 2025.

Roughly 60 percent of Austin Energy’s current generation mix comes from fossil resources — 44 percent from natural gas and 16 percent from coal. But renewable energy is growing quickly, accounting for 28.5 percent of all generation in 2013, according to the utility.

Those resources include 851 MW of wind power and 112 MW of biomass power. Currently, Austin Energy claims only 50 MW of solar generation, including 20 MW purchased from customers under the utility’s “Value of Solar” pricing mechanism. But the utility expects to add 150 MW of new utility-scale solar next year under a power purchase agreement it signed with Recurrent Energy in 2014.

Affordability measures are included in bids

The City Council-adopted resource plan, which also projects the construction of a 500-MW natural gas plant, envisions that Austin Energy will acquire the solar energy by 2017 if the power is “available and affordable.” If not, the utility will work to add the capacity before 2025.

“The goal under our plan is to add up to 950 MW of solar by 2025, including 200 MW of local solar,” said Carlos Cordova, a utility spokesman.

In addition to the renewable energy standard, Austin Energy must meet affordability metrics set by the council that cap rate increases to no more than 2 percent per year. The standard also requires that Austin Energy power bills rank among the bottom 50 percent of all utilities in Texas.

While Texas claims rank as the nation’s No. 1 producer of wind energy, it has been much slower than some other states to tap its solar power potential. Solar, along with biomass and hydropower, accounted for less than 1 percent of all power produced in ERCOT last year (EnergyWire, Jan. 14).

The state is beginning to see a shift, however, as a number of large utility-scale solar arrays have been announced for the state, including Recurrent’s 150-MW array in West Texas. San Antonio’s municipal utility, CPS Energy, also expects to begin receiving roughly 400 MW of solar energy next year from OCI Solar Power. More than half of that capacity is under construction in Texas.

Texas should also soon host one of the nation’s only 100 percent renewable-energy-powered cities. Georgetown, roughly 30 miles north of Austin, announced last month that it would meet its 100 percent clean energy goal using a combination of resources, including 150 MW of solar energy provided by SunEdison (ClimateWire, March 26).