West Texas renewable energy helps power Austin, San Antonio
West Texas country, known for oil and gas rigs, is quickly becoming the home to a number of renewable energy facilities which provide electricity for thousands of Texas homes and businesses.
On April 5, the East Pecos Solar Facility went live after a year-long construction period. The First Solar project covers about 1,000 acres and is made up of about 1.2 million solar panels.
At the height of construction, East Pecos employed over 900 people and following completion, there are 16 workers on site, according to Lizzy Yates, Southern Power Communications Manager.
Southern Power, a subsidiary of Southern Company, bought the East Pecos Solar Facility from First Solar upon completion of construction. First Solar is operating and maintaining the facility.
East Pecos Solar signed a 15-year contract with Austin Energy, a department of the City of Austin to provide power.
Austin Energy public information director Robert Cullick, says power from East Pecos can support about 24,000 homes running air-conditioning full out in the summer and 40,000 to 50,000 homes in the winter.
The wholesale price is under 5 cents a kilowatt hour, but extra fees are added for moving and distributing the electricity.
Cullick says a goal of Austin Energy is to have 55 per cent renewable energy available to its customers. In 2016, the utility reached 30 per cent.
Along with power from the electrical grid, Cullick says “we also take power from the grid mix of nuclear, coal and natural gas, but primarily natural gas.”
According to Cullick, Austin Energy was among the first utilities to invest in West Texas wind power.
“We had the first commercial wind plant in West Texas – we and the Lower Colorado River Authority,” Cullick told the Odessa American. He said a plant was built for the company in the Delaware Mountains across from Guadalupe State Park.
“We’re very pleased to be part of the first two major commercial plants in West Texas –Roserock and East Pecos. We were pioneers in the mid-90s and we’re pioneers again. West Texas fulfills a lot of Austin’s power needs. Wind blows at night in West Texas, so we get a lot of wind power … at night. It’s amazing there is so much wind energy coming from West Texas at night that some days you’re getting 40 per cent of the energy needs of the state … being met in those hours,” Cullick said.
Optimal hours for solar power are between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. “It does continue to produce all the way until sunset, but it really peaks when the sun is directly overhead,” Cullick said. “So now if you start tying all this together, you have a more continuous flow of energy from West Texas. They’re very complimentary – solar and wind.”
Lizzy Yates said the panels produce power even on cloudy or rainy days.
“Texas is a great place for solar. They call Florida the ‘sunshine state,’ but I think Texas could arguably be the sunshine state. … I do think that wherever the sun is shining, such as West Texas, we want to take advantage of it and harness it,” Yates said.
Yates said there are plans to acquire or build more facilities, but declined to be specific.
“Texas is a great state to do business in. … If there were opportunities that fit our business model, we would certainly take advantage of them,” Yates said.
Nearby solar facilities, Alamo 6 Solar has 438,480 panels and Pearl Solar has 203,472 panels, according to Steve Shipman, assistant project manager for Mortenson Construction.
Alamo 6 owned by Berkshire Hathaway Energy Renewables sits on about 1,257 acres and OCI’s Pearl Solar is on 540 acres in Pecos County.
According to Shipman, Mortenson Construction began its foray into renewable energy with its first wind turbine in 1995. “And slowly since then, our wind power business is booming.”
Mortenson added “At the same time, with those same renewable energy customers, we started getting involved with solar power, so one connection leads to another. We started with just installing foundations on these solar projects and now we self-perform the entire project,” Shipman said. “Every project just leads to a new opportunity.”
Shipment said about 400 people worked on Alamo 6 and about 130 are currently working on Pearl.
Alamo 6 began construction in May, 2015 and was completed in December, 2016. Pearl began in March and it was supposed to be done the week of March 27, but because of a six-month design delay, completion has been pushed back to around September, Shipman said.
Land prices, availability and soil consistency are all factors in deciding where to put solar farms.
“We drilled 10,440 holes in the ground, so we need soft farming land,” Shipman told Odessa American. “Half of the land was farmed, or already clear. The other half we had to clear. But that’s another factor is the soil is soft so it was easy installation.”
Shipman says the company has hired hundreds of people and has also found employment for about 250 sheep at Alamo 6.
“They started with 150 sheep on Alamo 6. I think they bought in another 100 last week, so right now there are more than 200 sheep clearing the grass. … I think they want even more because they’re not eating fast enough,” Shipman said. “… I’m assuming they’ll do the same for Pearl when it’s done.”
Another project between McCamey and Crane called Upton County Solar is being built through Con Edison, according to Shipman.
“That project’s massive,” Shipman said. “It’s about twice the size of this. I think they have close to 500 people.”
Pecos County Judge Joe Shuster told the Odessa American that the solar projects have stabilized the county’s tax rolls and helped diversify the economy. He added that 200 to 300 temporary jobs were created while the projects were under construction and there are 10 to 12 permanent jobs that pay well.
Shuster added the companies made a point of hiring local people first.
“It’s a plus for our county and it diversifies the county. We’re moving right up the ladder with energy,” Shuster said. He added that the solar projects are tucked away off the main roads so they aren’t disturbing the public.