Solar Advocates Say It’s High Time For Public Utility Commission to Act

by Published on
Solar advocates
Priscila Mosqueda

Seven years after the Texas Legislature passed a bill calling for the state to add 500 megawatts of non-wind renewable power to its energy mix by 2015, the Public Utility Commission has yet to enforce the law. Solar power advocates are urging the commission to enact rules that would implement the change and add another 2,500 megawatts to the target by 2025.

The Renewable Portfolio Standard passed in 1999 under Gov. George Bush was largely responsible for kick-starting wind energy in Texas and making the state the national leader in wind capacity. Advocates say the 500 MW non-wind provision could do the same for solar energy.

But the commission has declined to adopt the rule. PUC chair Donna Nelson has said the target set by the Legislature is not a mandate, and that the commission doesn’t have the authority to enforce the rule. The Sierra Club and a dozen other groups filed a petition with the commission in September requesting they open a rulemaking process to claim that authority, but the commission has until November to decide whether it wants to do that or not.

Clean Energy Works for Texas, a coalition of environmental organizations, rallied outside the commission’s offices Thursday, where renewable energy advocates and industry representatives talked about solar power’s benefits and delivered petitions.

Two businessmen said their solar companies have grown from two to about 25 people in a few years, and both are poised to open second offices. Both will be in California.

“I would rather it be in Dallas, San Antonio or Houston, but the reality is California has taken a stand to support the development of the solar industry seriously by setting statewide goals and local support for their solar companies,” said Resolve Solar CEO Tim Padden. “I want to see this happen here in my home state. These could be Texas jobs.”

California leads the nation in installed solar capacity, partly thanks to ambitious renewable energy standards and generous incentives to businesses and homeowners. The state has set a goal of 3,000 MW of installed solar capacity by 2016 and is already at 1,342 MW. By comparison, Texas ranks 13th in the nation in installed solar capacity. According to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Texas has 124 MW of installed photovoltaics, though Kaiba White of Public Citizen says many users don’t immediately report their units, so the number is probably about 20 MW higher.

“This is absolutely confounding, given our solar resource, our electric demand and our shortage of reserve capacity,” said Stan Pipkin of Lighthouse Solar. “It just doesn’t make sense.”

Critics have long held that solar power and other renewable energy sources are too expensive. In a letter to state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, who wrote Commissioner Nelson asking her to enforce the non-wind provision, Nelson said, “I continue to believe that a non-wind renewable energy mandate would unreasonably increase the cost of electricity for Texas ratepayers.”

But a June 2012 study commissioned by the Solar Energy Industries Association and the Energy Foundation found that increased solar capacity would have meant lower average wholesale energy prices in Texas in summer 2011. According to the report, an additional 2,500 MW of solar would have reduced prices by $1.50 per megawatt-hour, and 5,000 MW would have reduced prices by $2.90 per megawatt-hour. That’s partly because solar performs the best during hot, cloudless summer days when power demand soars.

At the rally, speakers also stressed the benefits that solar power offers to local economies. They said they’ve tried several times to get the Public Utility Commission to create rules that would enforce the 2005 measure, and will continue to do so until it listens.

“No matter what these commissioners say in response to our petition, we’re not going anywhere,” said Dave Cortez of Texas BlueGreen Apollo Alliance. “We are going to carry this campaign through the Public Utility Commission sunset and we’re going to carry this campaign through the state Legislature in their January session.”

Priscila Mosqueda is a frequent contributor to the Observer, where she previously interned for what everyone agreed was far too long. She grew up in San Antonio and graduated with a bachelor's in journalism from the University of Texas at Austin in 2012. Her work has been published in the San Antonio Express-News, The Austin Chronicle, San Antonio Magazine and "Forty Acres of Fun," a book about the unique culture and traditions of the University of Texas.