The largest solar farm in Texas is now pumping power to homes across Austin. The $100 million facility was switched on last month and city officials held a ribbon cutting ceremony today.
The solar farm is located about 20 miles east of Austin in Webbervile. Its footprint covers 380 acres, which is about the size of Zilker Park. And it has 127,000 solar panels that slowly shift to follow the sun’s path.
The solar farm can generate up to 30 megawatts, enough electricity to power about 5,000 homes. The energy is being dispersed throughout Austin Energy’s grid. While the solar array can't provide power all the time, it could provide big benefits during the hot, sunny days of summer.
The Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) has warned that Texas could have a hard time meeting energy demand if the summer of 2012 is the summer of 2011, when the state was brought to the brink of rolling blackouts. And ERCOT chief Trip Doggett couldn’t say the Webberville solar farm would be able to solve those challenges.
“I can’t. But I would say every little bit helps. This is not a tremendous magnitude of additional megawatts but every little bit helps,” Doggett said.
The solar farm was constructed by Sun Edison for North America, and Austin Energy has a contract to pay $10 million per year for all the energy it generates over the next 25 years. The city hopes to source 30 percent of its electricity from renewable resources by 2020.
City councils decision in 2009 to go ahead with the Webberville solar farm was not without controversy, especially because solar power costs more to generate.
“I think this is like a man trapped in a room filling up with water who decides against opening the door and instead uses a thimble to bail out through a hole in the roof, and as he drowns, he says, ‘This is such a great thimble, the largest thimble in the nation,’” University of Texas astrophysicist Robert Duncan told city council in 2009.
Sun Edison president Mark Mendenhall says prices for solar equipment have fallen dramatically over the last twenty years, and he believes the technology will become price competitive with traditional power plants like coal and natural gas in the long run.
“Solar, in our mind, is already cost effective and within a couple of years, as we sell our electricity as a similar price to the grid, the total cost of installing it is going to be much less,” Mendenhall said.