The solar buildout in Texas is going down a very different path than similar buildouts in other, more successful states, and the words “batteries not included” are at the heart of why.
One of the coolest movies of the 1980s is Batteries Not Included. Like the later movie Up, a rich developer is trying to get rid of some old people who are in his way of big plans for their little chunk of the city. He can’t move forward because the older couple who owns the building refuses to sell, and the poor tenants living in most of the upstairs apartments refuse to move out. Worse, the developer is paying two-bit gangsters to vandalize the building and terrorize its residents, hoping they’ll take his offer and move out.
But, then some strange (but very cute) miniature flying saucer drones with artificial general intelligence and additive manufacturing capabilities from somewhere out in space come to save the day. Using electricity from the building and scrap metal (they’re amazing at building and fixing things), the alien couple builds babies. Sadly, a power interruption during the build process causes the last one to be stillborn. One of the residents (who can only quote commercials for some reason, but is good at fixing things) says, “Batteries not included.”
I don’t want to ruin the movie for you by telling you the whole story, but it’s definitely worth a watch! Here’s the trailer (article continues after):
Texas Is Going Down The Same Path (*Batteries Not Included)
The reason I mention this movie is that I’m concerned that Texas may be going down a similar path. A recent article in PV Magazine tells us that the solar buildout is going very differently in Texas than it has in California.
In the article, the author reviews some statistics about upcoming grid-scale solar installations that are coming up for Texas and California. When it comes to the raw amount of solar power that’s going to be installed in the next three years, Texas is doing what they usually do: they’re going big. And by big, we mean they’re installing a whopping 28 gigawatts of solar.
To put that in perspective, El Paso Electric’s service area (which includes a big chunk of both west Texas and southern New Mexico), has only ever demanded around 2.2 gigawatts. This was on the hottest day of the year during the worst of the Coronavirus pandemic, when many more people were at home than usual and offices were still needing to keep the AC running in the 110-degree heat.
On top of that, I’m pretty sure that the Doc Brown from 1955 would have an aneurysm upon hearing the 28 gigawatt figure. I mean, just look at how bad a mere 1.21 gigawatts flipped his lid!
So, by any standards, be they from 1955 or 2022, 28 gigawatts is a fairly impressive amount of electricity. Great Scotts!
What’s California doing over the same period? Only (as if this were a small number) 16 gigawatts. To be fair, California had a big head start on Texas, so putting in 16 gigawatts of power still isn’t going to put it behind Texas when you consider the total, but it does show us that Texas is taking solar seriously. And, it really does make sense, because Texas has some of the best sunlight for making electricity in the United States.
But, there’s one catch: like the last little robot made in the movie, Texas solar projects tend to be “*Batteries not included.” While Texas is building a lot more solar generating capacity, only about a quarter of the big solar projects include any kind of battery storage. Compared to California’s plans, that’s an enormous shortfall, as California is planning on doing battery storage with 99% of its projects.
Texas is also falling behind big on how much of its solar energy comes from residential installations. In California, over a quarter of solar energy is coming from homeowners’ rooftops (which are also increasingly coming with batteries, as California has had some serious power problems in the past). In Texas? Only around 1/8 of its solar electricity comes from home rooftops. So, when it comes to battery storage, Texas is only going to get further behind, and it has experienced some serious power problems of its own during winter storms.
What This Can Tell Us About The Two States’ Approaches To Power (& Politics)
A quote the article in PV Magazine included really hits the nail on the head:
“Energy is not just technological, it’s also social. I think it’s fair to say that Texas is a very Libertarian state while California is more Communitarian – which is not the same thing as Communism. Simply put, the focus is more on the individual in Texas and more on community in California. Policies and regulations (or deregulation) that reflect these different world views have emerged in each state over time. These policies contribute greatly to the trends we now see in how solar and battery technologies are deployed very differently in each state,” said Dr. Jason O’Leary, principal analyst at PV intel.
I don’t want to rehash the article too much, but they go on to explain that there are very different regulatory approaches in the two states. California makes people and corporations putting in these projects serve the overall needs of the state more, while Texas is more of a free-for-all.
California knows that fossil power plants have to kick in hard as the sun goes down because there’s still a lot of demand at that time for electricity. So, they’re having solar projects include battery storage to help level off the curve and give the fossil plants more time to kick in. If they can get enough storage, they can delay that happening until later, when demand drops, which would greatly help reduce carbon emissions in the state.
In Texas? They’re building solar to sell megawatt-hours for cash. The state lets everyone build what they will and kind of lets the chips fall where they may. If that means more fossil fuels get burnt, that’s not a problem in their eyes.
In some ways, letting renewable energy perform poorly may even be good for Republican politicians. Even after the 2011 storm (that hit El Paso the hardest), they still didn’t require much in the way of winterization for power generating plants of all kinds. But, when the death numbers started rolling in, Texas Governor Greg Abbott knowingly lied about renewables instead of the states’ own incompetent approach to electric power.
With the “*Batteries not included” approach Texas is taking to building more solar generating capacity, they’ll have nobody but themselves to blame when “the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow.”
Featured image: The movie poster for *Batteries Not Included (Fair Use, Commentary).