Group aims to promote solar power in wind’s biggest market

Source: Edward Klump, E&E reporter • Posted: Friday, June 27, 2014

The sun is shining on the solar industry in Texas.

Or at least that’s the message from the newly formed Texas Solar Power Association, which made its formal debut this week.

Charlie Hemmeline, the association’s executive director, said solar energy is poised to build on recent momentum in the state. An objective of the new group, he said, is to talk about positive aspects of solar energy and the growth opportunities it presents.

“Fundamentals for expanding solar in Texas in the long run are incredibly strong,” Hemmeline said yesterday in an interview. “There was clearly a lot of interest on the part of the industry to step up their involvement in Texas and show that they’re here to stay.”

The association’s founding board members, which have Texas operations, include E.ON, First Solar Inc., Recurrent Energy and SunPower Corp. Membership includes other companies in the solar supply chain, such as manufacturers, power plant developers and rooftop integrators.

Hemmeline ticked off several reasons why solar makes sense for Texas: a large potential for energy from the sun, big power demand, abundant land, population growth, peak energy needs and a persistent drought in some areas.

Renewable energy production in Texas that’s tracked through a credit program rose about 12 percent last year compared with 2012, according to a report from the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT (EnergyWire, May 19).

Wind accounted for 36.9 million megawatt-hours, or roughly 97 percent of last year’s total. Solar showed the biggest year-over-year percentage gain, with a 33 percent jump to 178,326 MWh, ERCOT said.

More solar generation is expected. Last month, Recurrent Energy said it received an award from Austin Energy for a solar project with a 150-megawatt capacity in West Texas.

Still, the Solar Energy Industries Association has said Texas has 213 megawatts of solar capacity installed, which was good for No. 13 in the country. Texas’ installed wind capacity, meanwhile, leads the nation.

“Texas as a solar market isn’t a world-beater,” Hemmeline said. “But, again, I think the potential is there and really the timing is there for us to really make some good gains.”

The Texas Solar Power Association is forming a policy plan and will examine what role it might play in the 2015 Texas legislative session as well as with issues facing the Public Utility Commission of Texas and ERCOT, Hemmeline said.

“Over the summer, we’ll develop more of our specific agenda based on the needs of the member companies and the experience they’ve had developing projects in the market,” he said.

Hemmeline said the association plans to take an expansive approach toward possible collaboration with others who have a connection or interest in solar, such as homebuilders and environmental groups.

“The distinction that we’re bringing is that it’s a Texas focus, an industry focus and a solar focus,” he said.

It’s true that solar power in Texas could be ready for a growth spurt, said R.A. Dyer, a policy analyst with the Texas Coalition for Affordable Power. He said costs for solar panels and technology have dropped in recent years, while some municipal utilities have encouraged solar development.

“It’s not surprising to me that we would see some organization by folks in the solar industry to sort of get their message out,” he said.

Dyer said his coalition cares about affordability in electricity, so it would like to see ways for people to have savings in possible clean energy projects.

DOE experience

Hemmeline is a native of Texas, according to the group’s website, and he moved to Austin after spending more than eight years in the U.S. Department of Energy. His work included programs related to solar power and energy efficiency, and he was part of the Solar America Cities effort that included Austin, Houston and San Antonio.

The idea of the Texas Solar Power Association is to convey solar on its merits, but the group also seeks to avoid policy barriers that could inhibit growth, Hemmeline said.

While the focus may be on statewide issues, he said the association would watch issues such as a debate over possible solar fees in San Antonio.

Solar installations can be of varying sizes, such as a few kilowatts via a rooftop or in the hundreds of megawatts at solar power plants, the Texas Solar Power Association noted in a June 24 news releaseannouncing its arrival.

Donna Nelson, who leads the Public Utility Commission of Texas, has raised questions about costs related to renewable power in the state (EnergyWire, May 30). Hemmeline said the group would watch policy discussions on that front as well.

Pat Wood III, a former chairman at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the Public Utility Commission of Texas, said he was excited about solar energy’s potential in Texas and the possible role of the new association.

“I’ve been a big fan of competitive markets and I’ve been also a fan of clean energy, and I think those two things go together real nice,” said Wood, who’s on the SunPower board and is a principal at an energy infrastructure firm called Wood3 Resources.

The trajectory of solar probably is about five years behind wind in terms of market penetration, cost reductions and market acceptance, he said. Some obstacles for solar remain, from homeowners associations to interconnection practices, according to Wood, but he added that many are inadvertent.

“The group’s not looking for subsidies or handouts or kind of the old-style incentive programs,” but it’s trying to be surgical in how to let market forces work to help solar push through to end customers, he said.

The Association of Electric Companies of Texas, another industry group, looks forward to working with the new solar association, President John Fainter said.

“I think solar power is clearly going to be a part of the electric picture going forward,” he said.

For Hemmeline, the goal is to keep spreading his solar message through a state known for its hot weather and, in many cases, sunshine.

“We’re just excited to share the good news story about solar and build some relationships and make sure everybody h