Solar Power: Coming to a City near You!
At issue, electric utilities in the U.S. and worldwide are under growing pressure to expand their deliveries of clean, renewable power such as wind, biomass, and solar. In recent years, Texas has increased requirements for renewable energy portfolios (RPS) for utilities that supply power to the Texas grid. Texas has become the largest generator of wind energy of any State in the US.
CFE believes that there are two opportunities growing out of this trend. First, transmission capacity is severely lacking, so Texas is not able to realize the full benefit of the available wind power. As Texas looks to add transmission capacity, CFE is looking for opportunities to provide a variety of in-house services including real estate site acquisition, surveying, and transmission line engineering (civil and structural). Secondly, nature dictates that the wind typically blows at night and in the early morning, thereby producing energy at off peak hours. This natural phenomenon opens the door for solar energy generation. Because solar generation peaks at an opposite cycle to wind, these two renewable energy sources will maximize transmission line capacity, thereby creating a natural efficiency of distribution within the grid.
CFE is prepared to offer the kind of resources needed to complete the delivery of these energy sources. In fact, CFE is already playing an important role in this unfolding energy adventure. CFE’s leader, J. Carroll Faulkner, P.E. is currently evaluating the potential for a large solar project in West Texas. Mr. Faulkner is a native of Pecos, Texas, a small community located just north of another proposed solar site that Austin Energy recently purchased from the Texas General Land Office. Mr. Faulkner has ties to many of the West Texas communities, including a current engineering project to stabilize the water supply for Balmorhea and Toyah, two of the communities that will provide the labor force to support the coming solar energy industry.
According to Mr. Faulkner, “Because our current staff resources have expertise in site acquisition, survey, civil, structural, architectural, environmental, electrical and mechanical engineering, project management, and construction management, we can offer a multiplicity of services needed to implement a large scale solar project. For the most part, we provide these same services to land development clients throughout Texas and to telecommunications clients nationwide”.
CFE has an excellent working relationship with Austin Energy as a result of several design projects. We also have a great relationship with the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) and the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA). LCRA is governmental entity responsible for the construction of transmission lines from West Texas, and has recently completed a transmission project from wind generation facilities located east of Fort Stockton, approximately 70 miles east of Balmorhea/Saragosa.
What is Utility Grade Solar Power Generation?
There are two basic types of solar power generation: photovoltaics and concentrated solar power.
Photovoltaic (PV) is the technical word for solar panels that create electricity. Photovoltaic material, most commonly utilizing highly-purified silicon, converts sunlight directly into electricity. When sunlight strikes the material, electrons are dislodged, creating an electrical current which can be captured and harnessed. The photovoltaic materials can be several individual solar cells or a single thin layer, which make up a larger solar panel.
Solar thermal electricity technologies (also called concentrating solar power, or CSP) produce electric power by converting the sun`s energy into high-temperature heat using various mirror configurations, which is then channeled to an on-site power plant and used to make electricity through traditional heat-conversion technologies. The plant essentially consists of two parts: one that collects solar energy and converts it to heat, and another that converts the heat energy to electricity.
Concentrating solar power systems can be sized for village power (10 kilowatts) or grid-connected applications (hundreds of megawatts). Some systems use thermal storage during cloudy periods or at night to produce electricity outside of the traditional solar daytime window. Others can be combined with natural gas and the resulting hybrid power plants provide high-value, dispatchable power. These attributes, along with high solar-to-electric conversion efficiencies, make concentrating solar power an attractive renewable energy option in the southwest United States and other sunbelt regions worldwide.
Concentrating solar power technologies currently offer the lowest-cost solar electricity for large-scale power generation (10 megawatt-electric and above). Current technologies cost $2–$3 per watt. This results in a cost of solar power of 9¢–12¢ per kilowatt-hour. New innovative hybrid systems that combine large concentrating solar power plants with conventional natural gas combined cycle or coal plants can reduce costs to $1.5 per watt and drive the cost of solar power to below 8¢ per kilowatt hour.