Texas Solar Outshining California?
Texas and energy are nearly synonymous in this country. The “gusher age” in Beaumont kicked off the Oil Age that changed history, and even today Texas produces just under half of U.S. crude and gas. Houston in fact has the greatest concentration of oil refineries in the world. And the Texas Wildcatter is an American icon.
But anyone who’s driven east out of Lubbock knows that Texans don’t discriminate about their power. The wind farms in north Texas are some of the largest in the world and Texas now produces more wind power than any other state in the U.S.
So I suppose it shouldn’t be a surprise that in 2021 Texas became top of the heap for solar power as well, ranking #1 for new solar installations, putting California in 2nd place for the first time since Arnold Schwarzenegger invented solar power in 1972…or was it physicist Alexandre Becquerel in 1839?
And Texas is benefitting from their bet on solar power. There are now over 160,000 solar installations in the State with over 10,000 Texans employed and nearly $17 Billion invested. At current pace, Texas could have more than 10% of their electricity coming from solar alone by the end of the decade. Turns out the lone star in Texas is actually the sun.
So why and how did Texas pull this off in such grand fashion? Well, there are a number of factors. First off, Texas clearly does everything bigger, and there’s no exception when it comes to big sun, big houses and big summer energy bills – all factors that make solar an easy choice. And speaking of choice, Texans are used to shopping for their energy (in 1999, they became one of the first states to deregulate their electricity market). But these same factors exist in other states where solar hasn’t boomed.
It turns out that despite the Texas Big Oil bluster, they’re really all about Big Business, and Small Business and All Business in between. And Texas saw the opportunity to grow an industry with good paying jobs and lots of future investment, and they took it, passing some very deliberate legislation to encourage solar adoption.
In the same year as deregulation Texas enacted an early Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) encouraging utilities to develop alternative energy resources. In 2001 Texas created a renewable energy credit program to complement the RPS. But things really took off in 2016 with a near tripling of solar generation from the year prior. Steady increases throughout the teens and then another massive jump in 2020.
And as much as we like to demonize the utilities, they’ve had a positive impact. A few in particular like El Paso Electric, CPS Energy and Green Mountain Energy implemented net metering programs (an important system for anyone considering solar: check here) and Austin Energy and CPS Energy have incentives for homeowners who install solar (both offering a $2500 rebate).
And of course we like to say that the federal government has been dragging their feet on any meaningful climate legislation – which they have – but, in 2005 another prominent Texan, President George W. Bush, passed what could be the most meaningful solar incentive we have yet: the Solar Investment Tax Credit (more here as to why Dubya might be the most unsung climate hero around: link to ITC article).
That tax credit, which is still available to anyone who buys a solar system, is possibly the strongest incentive available for the installation of solar power. It will cover 26% of the cost of a solar system purchase, which for the average Texas homeowner, ends up being $8,000 to
$12,000 that they’ll get back from the government. Couple this with unstable and ever-rising prices for traditional power and the Texans making the switch to solar are above all else making a great financial decision.
But there are some more idiosyncratic reasons that Texans are tempted by the opportunity to create their own power. Texas likes to do its own thing, and this holds true for the electricity grid: Texas is the only state with their own, isolated, power distribution system. This means all the power made in Texas, stays in Texas, and vice versa (no outside power allowed). The consequence of this unique system is that the Texas power grid (which goes by the acronym ERCOT) is prone to supply issues that can dramatically drive up prices and lead ultimately to blackouts like what happened during Winter Storm Uri, leaving more than 4 Million Texans without power, over a hundred lives lost and nearly $300 Billion in damage – amazingly, over twice the cost of damage levied by Hurricane Harvey in 2017.
And speaking of Harvey, it turns out that Texans are no stranger to the impacts of climate change as well. Storm intensification (Harvey dumped 9 trillion gallons of water on Texas) coupled with the highest rate of land loss due to sea level rise (Texas Gulf coast is losing 4 feet of land per year) and you could consider Texas to be on the frontlines of the climate crisis.
Only fitting, then, that Texas has emerged as a leader in the adoption of clean power. And it’s encouraging for the rest of us that despite the divisive rhetoric and political drama we see, health, the environment and self determination are not a red and blue issue. Texas is on track to retain its number 1 spot for the foreseeable future, likely overtaking California in this decade – a state that got a 10 year head start. But this trend should be a sign of hope and optimism that we truly are on the path of a green energy revolution.