Bioenergy, Solar, Storage, Utility Integration, Wind Power

How the Right Kind of Electric Utility Can Increase Solar Energy and Jobs

You expect to hear solar electricity success stories from places like Austin and Sacramento, but San Antonio? San Antonio’s municipal electric utility was seriously considering expanding a nuclear power plant.

In March 2011 CPS Energy, the San Antonio utility, announced that the utility and NRG Energy, the majority partner in a nuclear plant expansion, had mutually agreed to suspend talks on two proposed reactors scheduled to begin construction in 2012. CPS currently generates about 28 percent of its electricity from coal, 14 percent from nuclear, 42 percent from natural gas, 13.5 percent comes from wind; solar and landfill-generated methane gas account for the remaining 3 percent (approximate figures from CPS website).

In 2009 CPS installed a 200-kilowatt (kW) photovoltaic system, small by today’s standards, but that solar electric system could supply 40 homes with electricity. Then CPS produced a request for proposals that included manufacturing solar and installing it in their territory. That was the beginning of what was dubbed the “New Energy Economy,” which launched in June of 2011.

An unlikely group teamed up and won the opportunity to install solar electric systems in San Antonio. The team includes a solar panel manufacturer Mission Solar Energy, which is a subsidiary of a project developer from Korea named OCI Solar Power, and German inverter manufacturer Kaco — all of which have been steadily increasing the amount of solar electricity being manufactured and installed in the San Antonio area. This program has resulted in the installation of over one hundred megawatts (MW) of solar electric plants on its path to 400 MW by 2016, enough electricity for 70,000 homes. SunEdison is another fully integrated solar company working on system installations in San Antonio as well as Silver Springs Networks. 

San Antonio has also kickstarted work on a grid integration research facility, which will make intermittent electricity from technologies like wind and solar more available and reliable. A small amount of electricity storage attached to the solar system can smooth out the intermittency.   

CPS’ solar work under the New Energy Economy program created more than 378 new, full-time jobs, $21.5 million in payroll, $105 million in construction and $1.2 million in education contributions. When you add it all up, San Antonio’s New Energy Economy has resulted in more than $622 million in investments in San Antonio through April 2014, said Steve Nivin, assistant professor of economics at St. Mary’s University and director and chief economist of the SABÉR Institute. An update to Nivin’s report is due out shortly. This CPS solar program is designed to encourage manufacturing in town, create 800 permanent jobs and result in an annual economic impact of $700 million to Greater San Antonio.

The structure of CPS as a municipal entity means that its job is to satisfy the people in the community, not to satisfy the shareholders like an investor-owned utility. The municipal structure enables open discussions on major electrical generation decisions. Other municipal electric utilities have successful solar programs like Sacramento, Austin, San Jose, Palo Alto and Colorado Springs. However these towns haven’t brought the manufacturing jobs as San Antonio has.

Discussions continue around what choices CPS will make for their long-term electrical needs that may include nuclear. This solar experience is showing that there is a place for solar, which creates jobs for community minded electrical utilities.

Lead image: Texas map via Shutterstock