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Solar power for Houston

The city of Houston will go solar for some of its energy needs.

Under a 25-year proposed agreement being announced today, the city of Houston will buy power for its buildings from the plant, which will be the largest solar plant in Texas when it’s completed in July. Its 10-megawatt capacity — which will be online only during daylight hours — will provide up to 1.5 percent of the city government’s power needs.

NRG, which won the contract to build the plant through a bidding process, will front the $40 million to build the plant on 70 acres of land at the site of the existing T.H. Wharton power plant near Texas 249 and North Beltway 8. The plant will use thin-film photovoltaic solar panels manufactured by First Solar Inc.

The city will pay 8.2 cents per kilowatt hour for the first year of the contract, but that can change over time and will be based on a combination of factors. For example, the contract prices solar power at 19.8 cents per kilowatt hour, but what the city pays will incorporate lower-price natural gas power when the sun isn’t shining.


CPS Energy, San Antonio’s municipally owned utility, signed a deal this summer for a 14 MW solar plant to be finished by the end of next year.

Austin Energy signed a deal with a solar power plant developer this month to build a 30 megawatt plant. That facility should be up by December 2010 , a spokesman said.

And Southern California Edison is planning two large solar projects with a combined 550 MW outside of Los Angeles for startup in 2015.

But the projects are not without controversy. Solar-generated power costs more than other kinds despite the free fuel source. In Austin some businesses and residents expressed concern over estimates that getting more power from renewables, including wind and solar, could increase bills by 22 percent by 2020.

I love me some green energy, but if cost is an issue it’s going to be a political negative for these initiatives. Fortunately, that shouldn’t be too hard to overcome as the technology improves and becomes more widespread, and Andrew Burleson has some ideas on how to make the best use of solar power:

As solar technology improves, however, building-integrated solar installations will make more and more sense in the Southwest, because they can provide a big additional spike of energy right when our energy demand is spiking – when it gets really hot in the summer. These systems are much cheaper if their purpose is only to absorb the afternoon demand spike – no batteries are needed for that.

Right now the biggest thing holding back solar tech is the cost of the cells. As that cost goes down it will quickly become practical for businesses to amortize the capital cost of the solar cells in the construction of their buildings, and then be protected from the huge energy bills we all pay in the summer months.

This is the great thing about distributed solar. If we use it right it provides extra boosts of power when they’re needed most. This means we can run a more fuel efficient central plant with less total capacity required. The reduction in energy demand spikes would also help stabilize fuel prices, which benefits everyone. That, to me, is the most concrete long-term justification for solar investment. The sooner we can truly stabilize our energy supply, the better of we’ll all be.

Recall also that the city of Houston can make it easier for people to install solar cells in their homes. Matt Yglesias also notes that Germany, not exactly someplace one associates with sunshine, is a leading user of solar energy. We can do more, and over time we will need to do more. No time like now to get started.

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  1. Jim says:

    @ Burlseson:
    “Right now the biggest thing holding back solar tech is the cost of the cells.”

    The biggest hurdle is decentralized power generation is the practical barrier to ‘net metering’. This is the selling of excess power generated by your solar array, back to the retail electric provider during the day when the power generated is much less than use. We’re (mostly) at work during the brightest part of the day, and use a bunch in tghe evening and at night.

    Texas law REQUIRES providers like Reliant & TXU to buy this electricity, becoming a virtual battery if you will, but try to find one in Houston that will actually do so.

    Our family could break even on the purchase and installation of an array within a few years IF the REPs would do net metering. Even if they paid the wholesale price for power it would greatly offset the cost. Our small business would break even within 18 months because we only use power from 9A-5P, five days a week. Solar panels themselves have dropped by almost 40% per KwH in the last year or so. We’ll get there!

  2. […] Solar power for Houston â?? Off the Kuff […]

  3. […] Back in September, I noted a deal that the City of Houston was working on with a firm called NRG to build a solar plant that would supply some of the city’s power needs. This deal has apparently hit a snag because it is a 25-year deal. The city generally doesn’t commit future taxpayer funds without some sort of oversight and approval, however, said spokesman Frank Michel. Future elected leaders don’t necessarily like being forced to pay for past administration’s decision should they go bad, so the city usually has a clause in long-term agreements that says they have to be reapproved on a year-by-year basis. […]

  4. […] blogged about this before, but the last word I had was that the talks had hit a snag, not that they’d […]