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Austin, Texas to make big solar energy expansion

Ivanpah Solar Electric Plant in Calfornia
Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

In a sure sign that solar energy’s time may at last be approaching, Austin, Texas has passed a resolution that would mandate that the city obtain 60 percent of its electricity from renewables over the next decade and go carbon free by 2030. Austin Energy, the main power utility for Texas’ capital, would build 600 megawatts of solar capacity and support the construction of another 200 megawatts of home and business rooftop systems according to a Wednesday piece in Real Clear Energy. That is four times the amount of current solar capacity in the entire state.

To be sure this proposal has a lot to do with the peculiar politics of Austin, a liberal city situated in the middle of red state Texas. But a couple of more practical factors are driving the drive toward solar. One is that Texas, while most famous as an oil and gas state, has been creating more of its electricity from renewables, particularly wind energy. Also, as Forbes recently suggested, solar panels have dropped enough in cost and have risen enough in efficiency to finally make solar economically competitive against fossil fuels.

Solar energy has always been a favorite of politicians of a certain political stripe. It has enjoyed generous government support over the years, particularly from the Obama administration, in the form of tax breaks and loan guarantees. This has led to a number of embarrassing scandals such as Solyndra.

It may be ironic that it may be Texas’ business friendly climate that will cause solar energy to take off in the state. Environmentalists give lip service to renewable energy on the one hand but oppose it on the other when someone proposes actually building power plants. The opposition to the Cape Wind offshore wind farm and accusations that solar plants fry birds are cases in point. Zoning and other regulations inhibit the building of rooftop solar systems.

Texas has a tradition of cutting through red tape and government gridlock to benefit business. Solar energy, when all is said and done, is just another business to be nurtured. It may never totally replace oil and gas, as some hope, but its day in the sun, as it were, may be drawing nigh in the Lone Star State. Other cities in Texas will no doubt observe Austin's experiment with keen interest.

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