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Solar report shows latest Austin Energy strategy

Monday, November 21, 2011 by Bill McCann

As Austin Energy prepares to pull power from the state’s largest solar electric plant in a few weeks, it is considering the possibility of participating in three more solar electric plants over the next eight years.


In fact, Austin Energy has lined up potential sites for three plants roughly 400 miles away in West Texas. As the price of solar electric equipment continues to drop dramatically, in part due to improved technology and increased demand, Austin Energy officials are optimistic that solar electric plants could be close to competitive with natural gas and wind within a few years.


As currently envisioned, the solar power plants would be as big or bigger than the solar  plant in the final stage of completion on city land east of Austin near Webberville. The Webberville plant, which will have a generating capacity of 30 megawatts of electricity, will be the largest solar installation in Texas and one of the largest in the nation when it begins operations, according to city utility officials. But its power will not be cheap – costing about 16 cents per kilowatt-hour, about four times that of natural gas and wind.


In response to a directive from the Austin City Council, Austin Energy recently prepared a report on its current strategy for meeting the city’s goal of obtaining 200 megawatts of solar power generation by the year 2020. That strategy calls for 175 megawatts of electric generation to come from four solar plants, including Webberville, and three in West Texas. West Texas sites have the advantages of getting about 30 percent more sun than Austin and also meet the late afternoon peak demand more effectively due to their longitude, according to the report.


The other 25 megawatts would come from rooftop and community solar electric projects. Rooftop projects scattered around Austin Energy’s service area currently account for more than 5 megawatts of generating capacity, thanks to an Austin Energy solar rebate program that has been in effect since 2004.


The three West Texas solar plant sites mentioned in the report include:


·       Saragosa, a site of about 400 acres that Austin Energy has leased from the Texas General Land Office; a potential 30-megawatt plant.

·       Toyah, a site of about 2,000 acres that Austin Energy has purchased; a potential 75-megawatt plant.

·       Round Mountain, a 20,000-acre site currently in predevelopment for a wind farm, but also could potentially house solar electric arrays capable of generating about 40 megawatts of electricity.


Austin Energy officials stress, however, that it is way too early to say when any of the West Texas plants would be built, if at all.


“The report reflects our current strategy to reach our 200 MW goal given the assets we presently have rights to, and the programs we currently have or are in development,” the report’s author Michael Osborne, Austin Energy’s special assistant to the general manager, said in an e-mail response to questions from In Fact Daily.


In the case of the Webberville plant, Austin Energy will purchase all the power generated from the facility, which was recently acquired by SunEdison from a Spanish solar company Fotowatio. Austin Energy has not yet determined whether it would purchase power from a privately built plant at any of the three sites, or build and own the plants itself, Osborne said. 


The report is optimistic about the future of solar electric due to the rapid growth of the industry worldwide and the dropping prices of solar electric modules. In 2011, for example, more than 22,000 megawatts of solar panels will ship worldwide, according to the report. That is about 10 times more than what was shipped in 2006. Similarly, since 2001 the retail price of solar modules has dropped by more than 50 percent.


Meanwhile, at least one Austin solar business thinks that Austin Energy should focus more attention on community-based solar projects as an alternative to large solar plants. Representatives of the company, CommunitySun, spoke at a meeting of the advisory Electric Utility Commission on Nov. 14 about their concept for small-scale, or distributed, solar electric projects.


Under the proposal, CommunitySun would install solar arrays on suitable land rather than on rooftops. Utility customers could buy a piece of the solar arrays, like buying a condo, according to CommunitySun Manager Jim Burns. “This would open up the market to a lot of people,” he said, including renters and those whose homes or businesses are in shade or poorly oriented to the sun.


“We have had some discussions with Austin Energy, but we have not had a warm reception,” Burns said. “It’s never been done before.”


In response, Austin Energy General Manager Larry Weis said: “We have had many different companies selling us different ideas – this is one of them.” Weis said later that the community condo idea “may require a special tariff and it requires wheeling across our system and other considerations.”


Another major sticking point, according to Austin Energy officials, is whether the idea might run afoul of the Texas Utilities Code, which bars third-party electric service within Austin Energy’s certified service area. CommunitySun representative Jeff Howard said his research indicated there was no conflict.


Intrigued by the idea, the commission approved a resolution by Chair Phillip Schmandt to request that the City Council instruct the city manager to develop a program to implement citizen-owned community solar power, provided that it recovers the full cost of service to the utility.

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