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Big oil Texas gets its biggest solar plant

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The birthplace of big oil, Texas, has done a pretty good job keeping solar energy out of the state so far, but a big solar facility is being built that will increase the state’s solar generation by 50 percent. Recurrent Energy just landed a contract to build a 150 megawatt solar installation for Austin Energy — one of the largest city-owned utilities in the country. The project will be completed by 2016, cost $525 million and will cover 1,000 acres of land.

According to a 2012 report from the Department of Energy, Texas has one of the highest potentials for solar capacity of any state in the nation. Yet, there are only a pathetic 201 megawatts (MV) of solar installed in Texas as of 2013. Texas ranks 13th among the states for total installed capacity — and it’s using a minuscule 0.7 percent of its potential.

To put that in perspective, Texas has nearly five times as many people as Colorado, yet Colorado has 238 MW of installed solar versus the 210 MW in Texas. Texas has roughly four times am many people as Arizona, yet Arizona has 1,093.5 MW of solar. California has 5,660 MW of solar, by comparison. On a per capita basis, Texas ranks 20th despite have abundant sunshine and the lowest installed cost in the nation for solar, hovering around five cents per kilowatt hour.

What’s the problem in Texas? It’s state policy. Almost all the solar that has been installed in Texas has been installed by municipal-owned utilities. Big oil has kept private utilities out of the solar generation business by lobbying against a net metering law that would allow residents or businesses to sell the power they generate from solar to the utility. Forty three other states have a net metering law.

Texas has a renewable portfolio standard (RPS) that mandates that a percentage of all electricity must come from renewable sources. Almost all of Texas renewable energy comes from wind. Perhaps the fact the oilman T. Boone Pickens is in the wind business might have something to do with the fact the RPS does not specify a mandate for solar.

If Texas matched other Sunbelt states, it would make a big dent in the amount of carbon being dumped in the atmosphere each year. However, Texas is a leading breeding ground for climate change deniers. Many of them are serving in the state legislature and its Congressional delegation. Governor Rick Perry can usually be counted in their number.

The big plant Austin Energy is building is a good thing. Whether it sets a trend, however, remains to be seen. In politics, money talks.

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