Big PV In Wind Country: First Solar Hits West Texas

Maybe the door really is opening to more big solar power plants in Texas.

Late last month the 41-megawatt first phase of a planned 400-MW project began operating in San Antonio, becoming the largest utility-scale array in the state. Now comes word that First Solar – the builder of huge solar power plants in the U.S. Southwest – is at work on a 22-MW project in West Texas.

agua caliente

Many of First Solar’s big power projects have been in California and Arizona, like Agua Caliente, in Yuma County, Ariz. (image via First Solar)

West Texas, despite its abundant sunshine, had heretofore been wind power country when it came to renewables. Pecos County, home to First Solar’s Barilla project, has several large wind farms and annual wind generation estimated at around 2,000 gigawatt-hours, about 6 percent of the U.S. leading  state’s immense wind output. In all, Texas had 12,214 MW of wind capacity as of last fall, but just 75 megawtts of “major solar project capacity,” according to data compiled by the Solar Energy Industries Association [PDF]. By contrast, California had 30 times as much solar – 2,248 MW.

Big solar in Texas has been hurt by a lack of state incentives for its development and relatively low electricity prices. But those prices have been rising. Solar could also offer advantages in meeting Texas’ biggest challenge, peak demand – summer afternoons and evenings – when wind tends to be less productive.

First Solar Senior Vice President of Business Development Tim Rebhorn emphasized that in the company’s Barilla announcement, saying “(t)he project will contribute to Texas’ immediate energy needs and demonstrate how solar power can provide a generating resource that can be effectively integrated into the ERCOT grid and help meet Texas’ energy demand, particularly during critical peak hours.”

One fascinating aspect of First Solar’s move into Texas, noted by the Dallas News, is that the company is building the Barilla plant without a customer lined up for the power, a demonstration of its confidence that a buyer will appear at price that can make the project viable. “We’re seeing constraints on capacity,” Rebhorn told the News, “And we think on the merchant side there’s going to be a price effect.” Rebhorn also told the News that the plant could eventually grow to 150 megawatts, if the demand is there.

The 22-MW phase of the plant, west of Fort Stockton, Tex., should be operational by the middle of this year, First Solar said.

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