A solar farm the size of a small city will open in the Texas shale heartland this month, adding more competition to a US oil and gas industry that is already flat on its back.
The blue rows of panels at the Oberon photovoltaic project will generate 150 megawatts of power when they plug into the grid south of Notrees, an appropriately named town in the Permian Basin. Oberon’s developers want to eventually expand the project to 1,380MW — enough to serve 230,000 homes.
A boom in solar projects is underway across Texas, the US oil and gas capital. The state will build a quarter of the record new industrial-scale solar capacity being installed across the US this year, according to the Energy Information Administration, part of the department of energy.
Much of that solar investment is taking place in the Permian Basin, the centre of a US shale oil industry that is now reeling from the impact of the coronavirus crisis and the price war between Saudi Arabia and Russia.
The solar projects are a threat to fossil fuels. Renewables have helped to force the closures of coal-fired power plants. They are now challenging the primacy of natural gas in the US electricity generation mix as the price of solar equipment keeps on falling. The Republican legislature has declined to rein in rapid increases in wind and solar despite its historic friendliness to the oil and gas industry.
Yet clean energy has a more complicated relationship with fossil fuels in Texas, a state of 29m people proud of its independent streak. Shale oil fracking has been a big driver of electricity demand, helping to spur investment in renewables.
The relationship is visible among Oberon’s solar arrays. Cut out of the rows are empty dirt rectangles the size of parking lots. The developer, 174 Power Global — a division of South Korea’s Hanwha Group — left the spaces to enable oil drilling rigs to set up and bore wells underground, says Jason Garewal, head of business development.
“West Texas is oil and gas territory, it’s not solar territory today,” he says. “And so we were pretty proud of our ability to add to the energy mix without taking away any future oil and gas extraction.”
Solar’s gains could be hindered by the fall in oil prices as West Texas Intermediate crude trades below $30 a barrel — less than half its price in January. The damage from coronavirus could also hit electricity consumption, sideline construction workers or disrupt the flow of financing, clouding growth for solar generation.
However, these issues might delay but will not stop the spread of solar in Texas, experts say. Clean energy investors with time horizons of more than a decade like the stable returns of projects backed by long-term contracts.
Edward Hirs, energy fellow at the University of Houston, says: “The key thing is they have a magnificent cost advantage over gas-fired power plants. The marginal cost of solar is zero.”
Texas already ranks first in the US in wind power capacity. It is now on its way to having the second-most solar PV capacity in the country after California. But unlike California, with a goal of 100 per cent clean energy by 2045, the Lone Star state is adding sun power through the incentives of a competitive electricity market.
Operated by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (Ercot), more than half the proposed project capacity queueing for a grid connection in that market is industrial-scale solar, records show.
“Everything’s bigger in Texas,” the saying goes. For solar developers it is an unmatched opportunity. The state consumes the most electricity in the US. Power demand has grown 5 per cent over the past five years even as it fell nationwide, according to the EIA.
The sunlight is intense, particularly in the cloudless skies of the Permian Basin in the state’s far west. Peak solar power output coincides with voracious air-conditioning demand on Texas’s blistering summer afternoons.
Moving renewable electricity from the vastness of the west to eastern cities such as Dallas and Houston was aided by special transmission lines the state authorised 15 years ago. Designed to handle wind power, they are now easing the flow of solar too.
A light-touch regulatory approach, popular with oil and gas executives, has also attracted the solar industry.
“It’s Texas: there’s very little in the way of planning laws or restrictions. It’s pretty streamlined from the point of view of permitting and getting connections. So you can develop an asset pretty quickly,” says Chris Archer, head of Americas at Macquarie’s Green Investment Group, a solar and wind developer with projects in Texas.
Green energy builders have encountered pushback in states where the urgency of climate change is widely embraced. New York governor Andrew Cuomo — now in the international spotlight as he addresses the country’s largest coronavirus outbreak — aims to get 70 per cent of the state’s electricity from renewables by 2030, but upstate towns have fought to keep solar panels out of farmland, while beachfront denizens of Long Island have opposed an offshore wind project.
No such hurdles confronted Innergex Renewable Energy’s $400m, 250MW Phoebe project in Winkler county, Texas, says Michel Letellier, chief executive. The desert soil was easy to lease and to drive piles into.
“Texas is a nice place for business,” Mr Letellier adds. “Maybe it’s because they carry guns — they are very polite.”
The grid operated by the non-profit body Ercot is largely disconnected from the interstate transmission networks to the east and west of Texas, exempting it from federal oversight.
Its market rules are distinctive. Generators are only paid for the energy that they sell, not for having capacity at the ready. Wholesale prices that average about $40 per megawatt-hour are allowed to climb as high as $9,000 per MWh when demand surges on the hottest afternoons, a potential windfall for generators. Solar farms’ output crests when the sun is highest, enabling them to participate in these sales.
“The Ercot power market is designed to be the ultimate competitive market,” Mr Archer says.
The cost of solar has plummeted, with the average industrial-scale PV project just $0.80 per installed watt last year compared to $3.53/W in 2010, according to a BloombergNEF and Business Council for Sustainable Energy survey.Federal tax credits for solar are also scheduled to be reduced in the next few years, sparking a rush to start construction to reap maximum benefits, says Cormac Gilligan of IHS Markit, a consultancy.
Big corporate brands have seized on falling costs to sign long-term solar power purchase agreements that also improve their environmental image. Of the record 13,600MW of clean energy deals that companies completed in the US last year, 5,500MW was in Texas and the majority of that was solar, according to the BloombergNEF/BCSE survey.
Google, McDonald’s and Wells Fargo are among those committing to buy power from Texas solar plants to run a new data centre, fast-food outlets and bank branches.
Neha Palmer, Google’s director of operations and head of energy strategy, says its $600m data centre near Dallas will run in part on power contracted from three Texas solar projects.
“[Texas] is a large, deregulated market. Users of electricity have a choice in who they buy electricity from and the type of energy that they buy,” Ms Palmer says. “I think that’s been another driver of the large uptake of renewables in the state.”
That is bad news for the oil and gas industry. The EIA projects that renewables will catch up to gas as a source of electricity nationwide in 10 years, capping its market share after years of gains fuelled by the shale drilling boom.
The penetration of solar and wind has drawn fire from the likes of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, an Austin-based think-tank funded in part by Charles Koch, the conservative billionaire whose donations with his late brother David helped shift US politics rightward.
Bill Peacock, the foundation’s vice-president of research, argues that solar and wind get an unfair break on local property taxes. They also do not pay the cost of new transmission lines to deliver renewable electricity, which is instead shifted to ratepayers, he says.
“The only possible reason whatsoever that renewable sources make sense is if what a lot of people are saying about climate change is true,” Mr Peacock says. “I would debate what a lot of people are saying about climate change.”
About 97 per cent of climate scientists have concluded that human-caused climate change is happening, says the American Association for the Advancement of Science, a position also accepted by most big US oil and gas companies.
Last year Kelly Hancock, a conservative Republican from Fort Worth, sponsored a bill in the state senate to force the Texas utilities regulator to study ways to strip out the benefit of federal tax credits for renewable energy groups in the Ercot marketplace. The legislation passed in the senate but failed to clear the Texas house.
Yet the arguments around renewables are not so neatly split on partisan lines. When the clean energy advocacy group Conservative Texans for Energy Innovation formed last year, it commissioned a poll that showed Texas Republican and independent voters broadly backed policies to help solar and wind.
“Historically, some of those key voices in support of the development of renewables have been more from the left side of the political spectrum,” says Michael Jewell, a CTEI board member. “We feel like it’s really important for the conservative side to be involved as well.”
In Washington, the Trump administration’s positions on renewables have ranged from lukewarm to hostile. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in December issued a rule that undercut the competitiveness of state-subsidised green power in PJM Interconnection, the biggest grid in the US, stretching from Virginia to Illinois.
President Donald Trump has claimed that wind turbines “kill all the birds,” described solar electricity’s potential as “not powerful enough” and adopted policies meant to prop up the ailing coal industry.
Yet, market forces have delivered a different verdict.
“Trump will be the president that retires the most coal plants and installs the most solar systems, and clearly that was not what he was after. He’s the solar president,” says John Berger, chief executive of Sunnova, a Houston-based solar company.
Oil companies have begun to embrace solar despite the threat it represents to their gas sales. ExxonMobil aims to meet 70 per cent of its Texas power demand with renewables through 12-year purchase agreements with Orsted of Denmark, including 250MW supplied by solar coming online next year.
Occidental Petroleum, the largest oil producer in the Permian Basin, struck a deal with Macquarie to provide 109MW of solar power over 12 years. It also built its own smaller solar farm whose energy will pump carbon dioxide underground to squeeze out oil.
“We put the solar in to lower our carbon footprint but also to provide lower-cost electrical power,” says Vicki Hollub, Occidental’s chief executive.
The wider oil industry’s energy-intensive processes have given an indirect boost to new solar plants by driving power demand in far west Texas up by an average of 11 per cent a year between 2013 and 2019, the fastest rate in the state, according to an Ercot study.
The same study recommended sending more long-distance transmission lines into the region but identified one problem: “oil and gas customers are not able to accurately project their demand needs more than one or two years ahead of time while transmission improvements can take up to six years to complete,” it says.
This mismatch is glaringly evident after the collapse of the west Texas crude market. Oil companies have shredded capital spending plans unveiled only weeks ago. The turmoil also raises the question of whether solar investment will survive an era of cheap oil.
Georgios Papadimitriou leads Enel Green Power North America, a division of the Italian utility that last year opened the first half of its 500MW Roadrunner solar project outside the Texas oil city of Midland.
He would prefer to see electricity demand rise, he says, but it is not crucial. “For us the key is that we are cheaper. So even if the pie stays the same, we can always claim a bigger piece. We’re more competitive.”
Colin Smith, senior solar analyst at consultancy Wood Mackenzie, says certain projects will struggle if electricity use slows in the state. “But overall, the economics for solar in Texas are very strong,” he adds.
Brooks Landgraf, a conservative state legislator from Odessa in west Texas and an advocate for the oil and gas sector, attended Oberon’s groundbreaking last June.
He predicts that as struggling oil companies cut loose workers, “there are going to be a lot more labour opportunities” in solar projects.
“Thankfully, I come from a part of Texas where we have the ability to produce hydrocarbon-based energy and solar energy and wind energy,” Mr Landgraf says. “It’s in our culture in the Permian Basin to produce energy.”