Texas Has Quietly Become a Leader in Renewable Energy

Renewable energy offers an enticing option — and understandably so. Conflict in the Middle East affects oil supply, environmental degradation inhibits new drilling sites, and increased carbon emissions drastically change global climate patterns. More and more, Americans consider other available fuel choices beyond the coal and gas relied on for centuries.

Renewable options such as solar, wind, and hydropower pose potential solutions to growing concerns surrounding fossil fuels. Only five states mine the coal for the rest of the country. Trains, trucks, and pipelines carry fuel thousands of miles for millions of consumers. But basic renewable infrastructures — specifically solar arrays and wind turbines — can be constructed in any state. The cost associated with solar and wind has dropped dramatically over the past few years, with solar reported as low as $.03 per kWh. So what’s holding the country back? Beyond politics, some significant hurdles face renewable options.

Because renewables face the laws of nature, they can be inconsistent. The sun doesn’t shine all day. The wind doesn’t blow all night. This leads to the need for storage solutions such as batteries for times of power source unavailability. The current grid infrastructure cannot handle such extreme storage flexibility by design. High-end batteries remain expensive and don’t last long enough to match current energy demand in the United States. And this form of energy storage doesn’t yet compete with today’s coal and gas plants that can fluctuate as needed with consumer demand throughout the day.

Private investors own most of the energy companies in the United States, creating an additional burden on the renewable industry. Private-sector investors must be willing to take on the financial risk associated with new technologies. One of the largest battery storage solutions is currently being constructed in the state of Texas to help balance out the contribution of renewables in the state’s electricity grid. But technologies such as better batteries for solar storage can’t improve without this economic gamble. On the individual level, residential solar panels come with an upfront sticker price of $10,000. The long-term savings more than make up for this investment, but this initial cost can turn the average consumer away. Americans, whether large corporations or small homeowners, thus hesitate to bet on renewables.

Renewable energy provides roughly 17% of the electricity generated in the United States.  In Texas that number is even larger.  In 2019 21.5% of Texas electricity came from renewable energy.  Yet a fully renewable system remains a long way off. Let’s consider the final hurdle: change proves inconvenient. No system remains perfect, but the one already set up often lends itself more user-friendly.

Texas Solar Energy Updates

A lot has been said about Texas wind and other pushes for renewable electricity generation, and solar is just as relevant a talking point. Texas is the 6th largest supplier of solar energy in the country, after all. Using that same 2018 data from the Solar Energy Industries Association, Texas ranks 2nd in the country with a projected growth of “9,115 MW over the next 5 years.”

Yes, solar energy only accounts for 1.6% according to 2018 data from the EIA, but it is one of the fastest growing means for electrical generation on the renewable energy side. 

Large Companies That Are Leaning Towards Solar

To speak to just how fast solar is growing, Honda recently made the largest solar energy purchase of any automotive company: “482,000 MWh/year from a 200 MW Texas solar facility.” And according to Honda’s renewable energy goals, they plan on curbing 60% of their total fossil fuel-drive electricity usage by switching to wind and solar energy. 

And speaking of giant companies getting involved with solar energy, Exxon Mobil has been highly active in the solar boom. According to NPR, Exxon will purchase their solar power from West Texas for the next 12 years as per their agreement with the Danish energy company Orsted.

As the aforementioned NPR article reminds readers, Exxon had invested in the scientific research that developed photovoltaic technology. They were not the only investors that made photovoltaic research initially happen, but they definitely helped contribute to the overall development. But because of just how inefficient and expensive the earlier cells were, they didn’t seriously pursue diversifying in solar panels until now. This is largely because of the constantly decreasing prices of solar as well as well as their efficiency.

Plummeting Prices and Wider Use

MIT states that solar panel prices have fallen by 99% in the last 40 years. The biggest explanation for the drop in price has been for one major reason: “the largest single high-level factor in the continuing cost decline has been economies of scale, as solar-cell and module manufacturing plants have become ever larger.”

My San Antonio suggests rolling with the developing solar panel market and adopting rooftop solar as a way to prevent power plants from firing during peak demand times-where electricity prices to meet the increased demand. 

And although there are plenty of electrical transmission and storage challenges that are deterring solar projects, Texas solar will continue to expand along with the other renewable energy efforts.

The State of Solar Energy

cheap green electricityEven though wind farms and natural gas generators have increased in construction costs throughout the Country, solar photovoltaic systems have actually decreased in cost to make. This is according to the EIA, who say that “Since 2013, average costs for solar photovoltaic generators have fallen by 37%, wind by 13%, and natural gas by 4.7%.” 

As more engineers build more renewable energy projects, the value the big 3 (natural gas, wind, and solar) bring to the grid (97% of capacity to be exact) offsets the costs of construction. In addition, because of “falling costs in crystalline silicon axis-based tracking panels.” 

Sure, solar energy is far behind the other renewables for producing energy–the EIA says that solar didn’t hit 2% last year–but a part of this is that the technology is still relatively new. Researchers are just now learning of the most optimal environments for solar panel efficiency. Additionally, technology will hopefully continue to grow in sophistication, meaning that the 27% of energy that coal produced last year will be absorbed more by solar, wind, and natural gas. It’s going to have to be, at least, as coal plants are continually phased out.

Smart Uses of Solar Power

In Israel there lies one of the largest solar energy projects in the world: the Ashalim Solar Thermal Power Station. It will account for close to 1% of electricity generation for all of Israel. With over 500,000 concave mirrors in usage, this will power close to 70,000 homes in Israel. Another cool feature is this: 

“The power station uses a thermal-energy storage system, based on molten salt, which allows the plant to operate for approximately an extra 4.5 hours daily at full power after sunset.”

Jumping back to the United States, researchers at Columbia University have figured out a way to increase solar cell efficiency by harnessing excitons. This simply means that there will be more than one exciton made per energy transfer process. Instead of one “excited” atom transferring electricity to an “acceptor” atom, there will be two. And this is done by using organically designed materials. 

The Future of Solar Power

The  two previous examples shed light on solar’s future. Even though some states are losing solar jobs despite renewable energy pushes, and despite the 30% tariffs on imported solar panels issued by Trump, growth is good, demand is higher than ever, and prices will continue to fall. This all means that solar power will contribute much more to overall grid capacity for some time.

Texas, meanwhile, has the largest untapped potential for solar power in the country. 

Why Retrofitting Turbine Batteries Can Lead to More Secure Grids

We have talked about the importance of beefing up our electrical grid with batteries before, and it’s still relevant today. Because of how uneven wind-generated power can be, equipping turbines with batteries is a surefire way to make consistent electricity

Take for instance Glidepath Power Solutions and their recent acquisition of 8 Texas wind farms for the purpose of retrofitting the older turbines with revamped amperage power. More specifically, Glidepath is equipping the turbines with batteries that will have much more electricity storage capacities to strengthen the reserves available to a dangerously depleted grid–as this summer’s heat has illuminated.

The Glidepath acquisition was from Exelon and totals 149 Megawatts (MW) in total. And according to Utility Dive, Glidepath wholeheartedly believes that retrofitting turbines with better batteries will prevent the problems that ERCOT faced this summer.

According to that same source, “GlidePath’s acquisition brings its operating portfolio to more than 445 MW, which is in addition to its development pipeline of more than 1 GW of battery storage projects across the country.” So they are doing a lot to make wind more efficient for Texas energy.

A Shift Towards Retrofitting and Battery Storage

Earlier this year, General Electric reported they would be scrapping a plant in California even though it had 20 years left in its lifecycle. Instead of getting its traditional use, it will be mothballed and turned into a battery storage site. This will most likely happen more frequently in the upcoming years as renewable energy continues to grow, meaning that a demand for battery storage will be needed to match the output.

In short, grids need more backup reserves to avoid blackouts and system failures. This push to retrofit legacy technology into something much more sustainable is going to only push smarter and stronger grids.

Storage Development Directions for Wind Farms

John Parnell, a contributing writer for Forbes, calls the scale the Glidepath’s acquisition a telling sign that storage development is only going to get bigger. And many are chiming in and agreeing that renewables can be even more powerful if wind energy can be stored more efficiently and longer in Texas.

So, all of this is obviously a positive thing. Retrofitting inefficient turbines will only strengthen the grid. But it also begs the question as to how much energy should be invested in retrofitting versus building new wind farms with the updated technology. We will see how this recent development unfolds in the years to come.

Amidst Blackouts, Does Texas Need to Build More Power Plants?

Because of the recent rolling electricity blackouts in El Paso and power plant outages in other parts of Texas, there has been a lot of talk about the need to build more power plants in Texas to saddle the extra demand on the grid.

In order to stop Texas from experiencing rolling blackouts, ERCOT urged consumers to conserve energy because reserve margins were dangerously low. 

But this begs the question: do we need to build more power plants to beef up the grid’s available electricity? And in that case, with coal plants being phased out, will this need lead to more pushes for net-zero plants like Net Power is building?

Let’s explore this topic a little more. 

What Causes a Blackout?

Simply put, a blackout is the result of a grid system failure or, to put it even simpler:  “In nearly every major blackout, the situation is the same. One piece of the system fails, and then the pieces near it cannot handle the increased load caused by the failure, so they fail.”

Blackouts result from severe weather as well, meaning that a lightning strike or blizzard can cause a transmission line to fail and the rest of the system fails in succession because of an overload.

Rolling blackouts are a less severe, more common form of blackouts, where grid operators systematically shut down certain areas to avoid an overloaded grid.

With all that being said, do we need more power plants as an added defense mechanism for the Texas grid?

So…Should Texas Build More Power Plants?

Here’s the thing: More power plants mean higher prices for consumers. But if we do not have the reserves available for rising electricity demands, then blackouts will become the norm. Neither the electric companies nor the consumers would welcome that change.

As Bloomberg states, (via Finance & Commerce) “The U.S. has become so awash in cheap natural gas and renewable power resources in recent years that electricity prices have, in some places, plunged below zero.” This means that the burden for electricity generation has fallen largely on the shoulders of wind farms in Texas, and not the coal factories, which are being phased out

It seems like at the very least, more natural gas plants need to be built while Texas continues its positive push into more sustainable energy and increased production of wind farms. Texas isn’t quite there yet for wind to provide the needed buffer while electricity demand is so high.

Many are seeing this as a wake up call for Texas to start the process on more power plants. We will see if this drives even more wind farms or if natural gas plant projects will emerge instead.

The Benefits of More Wind Farms

Wind has been an incredibly robust source of renewable energy for electricity generation in Texas. And as wind farm development is at a record high in the Nation, there is a lot to be optimistic about in the Texas energy sector and for advancements in renewable energy in general.

According to data laid out by the American Wind Energy Association, there are over 200 wind farm projects that are in the process of being built or are close to being added to the ever-growing collection of wind farms out there. Additionally, “The U.S. wind industry installed 736 MW of new wind power capacity in the second quarter of 2019. The industry has commissioned 1,577 MW in the first half of the year, a 53% increase over the first half of 2018.” 

Wind Leads to Cheaper Electricity

Texas is ahead of the pack with over 25% of all wind power capacity in the country.  But really, the country is strongly developing as well, putting forth a lot of resources and capital into greener, cleaner energy.  

A big incentive for this push for wind farm production is that the Government awards production tax credits (PTCs) for their development. As the EIA states though, those credits are being phased out this year, so that’s a large reason for an uptick in recent wind farm development.

And yes, wind generation lowers the prices of electricity rates for consumers. The government subsidies really do result in cheap electricity rates for consumers. In addition, some electricity plans can even provide free electricity at night as a result of this readily available, renewable source. 

The Future of Wind Production and Technology

As the American Wind Energy Association states, the 2Q of 2019 is looking to be a groundbreaking year for wind development. With the “total U.S. wind capacity to 97,960 MW, with more than 57,000 wind turbines operating in 41 states and two U.S. territories,” the future looks bright for renewable energy efforts in the country. 

Even after considering the tax credit phaseout, there are still many green initiatives driving the production as we look to keep our environment clean by combating climate change.

And not to mention recent advancements in turbine technology, which are driving up the efficiency of the windmills. According to Scientific American, turbines are about a MW more powerful than the majority of those in operation today, so a lot of newer turbines are producing more energy. This also means that larger, more efficient towers are being built to free up space.

All of this is an exciting glimpse into the future of wind-generated energy!

Wind-Generated Electricity Continues to Win Out Over Coal

There has been a consistent upward trend for wind-generated electricity in Texas. As the Electric Reliability Council of Texas has recently reported, the industry is continuing to invest in renewable energy for the long haul.

ERCOT states that wind-generated electricity in Texas has beaten coal by 1% so far this year. That means that wind was responsible for 22% of all of the electricity generated in the state. Coal represented 21%.

Of course though, natural gas is still ahead of the pack at 38%. And it accounted for 44% last year, so it’s safe to assume that it will be the leader for years to come while renewable sources like solar and wind continue to rise.

Now, a lot of analysts have chimed in, sensing that wind’s current placement in the rankings is because of uncharacteristic weather. And that could certainly be the case come the latter half of this year. But the data has been consistent across recent years that renewable energy sources like wind in particular are to be viable and robust agents of change in the Texas electricity economy.

As ERCOT pointed out in 2016, wind topped 15,000 MW. That record-setting mark is just a glimpse at how the electricity dynamic is shifting, and will continue to shift as it has since the start of the millennium when wind sources hadn’t represented even 1% of Texas power.

Some Reasons for Wind’s Recent Rise to Power

As Smart Energy International points out, Texas has the most potential for wind generation in the entire United States. A large part of this is the consistent and often chaotic winds that buffet the Texas locale.

As this article states on the wind power of Texas, the state has more than 12,000 wind turbines. This means that “the state’s $40 billion private industry also employs a quarter of the nation’s wind-energy employees.”

Because of these considerable investments in wind energy, it’s no surprise that wind energy has climbed so steadily over the years to just now surpass coal in the first half of this year.

Forecasts for Renewable Energy

CNN states that Texas produced a quarter of the nation’s wind energy in 2017. And as the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) continues to forecast, they think that solar and wind will continue to grow the fastest in the next two years compared to other sources of energy.

As the EIA states in this report, “This projected growth is a result of new generating capacity the industry expects to bring online. About 11 gigawatts (GW) of wind capacity is scheduled to come online in 2019.”

So, the future looks very wind-driven for Texas electricity, and by extension, the nation’s power will continue to be built around renewable sources.

MP2 Energy’s Unique Charging Plan for Electric Vehicle Owners

MP2 has recently announced the commencement of a charging plan solely with electric vehicle owners in mind. The plan is a first in the industry. It will offer free rates to those who charge their electric vehicles during designated, low-cost times, with an increased emphasis on the customization of charging schedules for customers.

As is typical for electric providers, rates vary according to the hour that electricity is used. Peak hours equal peak prices. And because of this facet of the industry, the idea from MP2 is a logical action for the Shell Energy North America subsidiary to take.

Thinking Outside The Box

Incentivizing the use of electric vehicles is actually a pretty important and intelligent move for MP2 to make. It bolsters Shell’s market, it publicly demonstrates a focus on reducing carbon emissions through electric vehicle usage, and the price won’t be as steep due to a utilization of low-cost times for vehicle charge.

But will this incentive translate to even more prospective customers in their retail market? That’s a hard question to answer at this stage, but because the plan is so customizable, they might have a winning formula in its design.

Catering To EV Owners’ Green Side

In addition, the new plan will utilize all renewable energy, the prices are already competitive in the market-so there isn’t a wide discrepancy in MP2’s standard pricing plans–and really, with electric companies specifically looking out for the minority who own electric vehicles, a bit of solidarity is achieved with the move.

Because of the customizable characteristics of the plan, MP2’s retails customers (who own an electric vehicle) in Texas, Illinois, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Virginia will be hard pressed to find a more flexible plan. And because MP2 and Shell Energy North America work closely with solar and other forms of alternative energy, the creation of energy, and as they state, “everything in between,” their inclusive reach has only grown.

Staying Ahead Of The Competition

Ever since MP2’s inception, the Woodland, Texas based company has prided themselves on the customer service and communication they offer. Their parent organization in Shell Energy was founded in 1995 and provides a lot of reinforcement for the efforts on MP2’s part. And with this move, it will be interesting to watch just how well this translates to customer satisfaction and conversions.