Equilibrium & Sustainability

Solar power is helping Texas keep its air conditioning amid brutal temperatures

Downtown Austin Texas with capital and riverfront. iStock.

AUSTIN, TEXAS — Solar power has played a small but crucial role in keeping the lights — and air conditioning — on in Texas amid this week’s brutal heat wave.

Solar plants gave the state grid about 8 gigawatts of power amid soaring midday temperatures on Wednesday, according to the Energy Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), which oversees the state grid.

Solar was pumping 9 percent more power than expected into the grid at noon, ERCOT reported.

That’s more than twice the state operating reserves of 3.7 megawatts.

The solar supply was a welcome relief as record energy demand — at levels far above what was predicted in early summer — strained the state grid this week. 

Texas peak demand was projected to hit just under 80.5 gigawatts in the heat of the afternoon, according to ERCOT, well above the 77 gigawatts that ERCOT predicted would be the maximum summer power demand back in May. 

It also marks the ninth time this year the state grid has broken demand records, Bloomberg reported.

Without solar’s contribution, the state would have been in energy deficit, ERCOT’s figures show.

Solar is providing needed stability to municipal grids, Cody Tellgren of Duke Energy told West Texas-based television station KIDY.

Duke operates about 200 megawatts of solar energy in West Texas, KIDY reported.

One benefit of solar is that supply peaks at midday, when the sun is the highest — and so is electricity demand, according to an op-ed by Patrice Parson of the nonprofit Texas Solar Energy Society.

That quality could make expanding solar the easiest way for Texas to shore up its “creaking” grid, Reuters columnist Robert Cyran argued.

Expanding solar was more sustainable than continuing to run gas and coal plants without maintenance, cheaper than building new fossil fuel power plants and more politically feasible than connecting Texas’s isolated grid to the rest of the country, Cyran contended.

But better battery solutions are needed to store solar power to meet the demand of hot summer evenings, when air conditioning use remains high but solar supply dwindles, according to a Department of Energy fact sheet.

Even now, more than 85 percent of homeowners are now buying batteries as part of rooftop solar systems, Parsons of the Texas Solar Energy Society noted.

Texas’s solar capacity has doubled over the past year and tripled over the past eighteen months, renewable energy consultant Doug Lewin told ABC last week.

But regulatory roadblocks, rising processing fees and unpredictable delays in permitting — as well as drastically different processes in different Texas cities — are threatening further expansion, Parsons argued.

The boom in solar has helped the Texas renewables industries outpace the state’s fossil fuel industry in bringing back jobs after the coronavirus pandemic.

As fuel production lost about 14,000 jobs last year, sustainable technologies added about 13,000 new jobs, according to a study published on Monday by the nonprofit Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis.

“If you are focused on oil and gas to be your savior for creating jobs you are focusing on a cyclical market,” analyst Trey Cowan, who worked on the study, told S&P Global.

“It makes more sense to invest your policy dollars where you can grow faster,” Cowan added.

Meanwhile, recovery in the fossil fuel sector — long regarded as Texas’s hallmark industry — are lagging behind the rapid job growth in renewables, electric vehicles and energy efficiency, according to the study.

The state oil and gas industry has brought back only about half the jobs lost during the pandemic, the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis reported.

That may be “as good as it gets,” as job growth in fossil fuels appears to have plateaued, the institute found.

Texas’s advantages led solar manufacturer GAF Energy to choose the state for its new solar roof-tile factory — rather than offshoring production to Asia, CEO Martin DeBono told Reuters. 

GAF announced on Tuesday that it would open a $100-million factory just north of Austin, according to a company statement.

Rather than external solar panels, GAF’s light-capturing solar shingles are part of a house’s roof, Reuters reported. De Bono told Reuters that domestic production was better suited to this approach, which contrasts from the mass-produced external panels whose manufacture is currently dominated by East Asia.

“You can’t expect to make the same thing as everybody else in the world and be successful in a business, especially in a business as competitive as solar,” DeBono said.

Tags Austin Climate change Heat wave Solar power Texas
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