The great state of Texas is known for many things, such as leading the US into the wind energy revolution while also nailing down first prize for oil and gas production, making it harder for people to vote, and empowering money-seeking vigilantes all over the country to police pregnant Texans, most of whom are women. Aside from all that, the Lone Star State’s solar power profile is absolutely exploding, so let’s zoom in on that.
In Texas, Wind Power Makes Room For Solar Power
Wind power used to suction off all the media attention whenever attention turned to renewable energy activity in Texas, thanks partly to the state’s free-and-easy attitude towards energy regulations and its copious wind resources.
The only obstacle to a ferocious level of wind development was a yawning gap of territory between prime wind power spots in West Texas, where relatively few people live, and big-city population centers to the east. A new $7 billion, 18,500 megawatt, 3,600-mile transmission line project resolved all that back in 2013.
By 2014, Texas placed itself firmly up front in the US wind power race. The rest is renewable energy history. When last heard from, Texas was already leveraging its clean kilowatts to knock California off its perch as a hotspot for electric vehicle sales (more on that in a sec).
All that time, solar power in Texas has been toddling along in the shadows. One hint of great things to come in the solar power area popped up in 2014, when the German energy storage expert Younicos dropped in to install the energy storage side of a modest-sounding, 1-megawatt solar-plus-storage project.
More Solar Power For Texas
Nowadays the scale of solar power development in Texas is a bit bigger. For example, earlier this year Lightsource BP flipped the switch on a new 260-megawatt solar power plant in Lamar County with an assortment of biodiversity features, something for which the company is becoming known.
That’s peanuts. Last summer BP acquired the leading solar power company 7x, which has a 602-megawatt solar array in Pecos County under its belt. At the time of its acquisition, 7x listed a total of more than 1,700 megawatts of solar in the Texas grid managed by ERCOT.
That is also peanuts. Last week the Dallas Morning News reported that ERCOT has seen a deluge of new solar proposals totaling 91,000 megawatts of solar along with 33,000 megawatts of battery-type energy storage and another 23,000 megawatts of wind power, to boot.
Dallas Morning News points out that the need for additional transmission lines is one of the roadblocks between Texas and all 91,000 megawatts of that new solar power, but the growing number of green hydrogen fans in the state may have a solution to that, the idea being to use solar energy to split hydrogen gas from water. The gas could then be transported through existing roads or pipelines, though the ongoing truck driver shortage indicates that planning gaps continue to persist.
Solar Power: Smaller Is Better …
The utility-scale solar projects marching into Texas are just part of the picture. The disturbing number of catastrophic weather events in Texas and elsewhere around the US is turning more people on to the idea that they should put their own solar panels on their own roofs. That’s not necessarily a solution when your whole house is destroyed by wind and water, but it does get people to thinking.
The US Department of Energy has also been pushing the idea that the grid of the future should not rely so much on centralized power plants in general, which would include solar power. A more aggressive pursuit of rooftop solar power would also help the overall energy profile of the US melt away from fossil fuels more rapidly.
Earlier this year a research team at Texas A&M University took a look at the high-impact potential for rooftop solar arrays. They reported that rooftop solar represents “a technically, economically and environmentally feasible solution for electricity generation, and could play a significant role in the future energy mix of Texas.”
Lead researcher Fadhil Al-Aboosi has been focusing the team on solar power adoption in countries that are oil and gas producers, and Texas fits the bill even though it is just a state and not its own country — at least so far.
Al-Aboosi also notes that the team is focusing on solutions that avoid land use issues, especially in the agriculture area, which is a good move. It’s not always a good idea to plaster valuable farmland with solar panels, though the emerging field of agrivoltaics is beginning to show how PV panels and agriculture can actually get along, at least to some degree.
… But It’s Complicated
In an interesting twist, nobody ever bothered to undertake a study of this kind in Texas before Al-Aboosi’s team took on the challenge.
That’s a bit more complicated than it may seem.
“We considered technical, economic and environmental criteria, solar irradiance intensity, two modes of single-axis tracking, the shadow effect and the PV cell temperature impact on system efficiency,” Al-Aboosi explained.
Specifically, explains Texas A&M in more detail, the team “evaluated parameters of the proposed system, including energy output, array yield (the ratio of daily, monthly or yearly direct current energy output from a PV array), final yield, array and system losses, capacity factor, performance ratio, return on investment, payback period, levelized cost of energy and carbon emissions.”
In other words, the availability of premium solar resources is just one element in the economic case for rooftop solar power in any particular location.
You can get all the juicy details in the study, titled “Preliminary Evaluation of a Rooftop Grid-Connected Photovoltaic System Installation under the Climatic Conditions of Texas,” in the open access journal Energies.
The Texas A&M findings could help accelerate rooftop solar development by optimizing the site selection process, but Al-Aboosi cautions that there are still some loose ends to tie up.
“It can be used as a future vision, especially the economic analysis, for estimating the potential of investment incentives, subsidies and feed-in tariff…to make implementing solar PV systems more attractive in Texas and around the world,” he said, while noting that further research areas will include strategies for managing the kind of distributed energy resources of which the Department of Energy is dreaming.
Welp, So Much For Women in STEM
None of this is good news for fossil fuel stakeholders, and they face the additional threat of a brain drain as clean tech companies siphon off top talent in STEM fields.
That could become an especially acute problem in Texas. Attracting more women to STEM is something that both fossil and alternative energy firms are investing lots of, well, energy on, but Senate Bill 8 now entitles any random stranger, including abusers, stalkers and rapists, to sue a woman in Texas over ending a pregnancy, even if it’s not her own pregnancy and somebody else’s.
I know, right? Weird! Of course, the new law also impacts the many clean tech firms that are seeking to carve out their future in Texas, so stay tuned for more on that.
Image (screenshot): Solar energy in Texas courtesy of Lightsource BP.