You probably haven't noticed any recent changes in your electricity service while stringing holiday lights, cooking meals for visiting family or staying up late into the night studying for finals.
But for about a week now, CPS Energy customers in San Antonio have been buying clean, solar energy from the largest solar farm in Texas, "Alamo 1."
There's no notification of when and where your daily life is being powered by the sun – there's no green fairy that tells you the cup of coffee you made this morning was with electrons from a non-carbon emitting, renewable energy source – it would be impossible to track anyway. It's just somewhere out there on the energy grid infrastructure now. For customers, it's pretty much business as usual.
But for CPSE and the renewable energy portfolio of the state of Texas, it signifies the completion of the first phase of a 400 megawatt (MW) deal between CPSE and OCI Solar Power. When completed, that deal is expected to bring about 800 permanent jobs and an annual economic impact of $700 million to Texas.
Alamo 1, a 41 MW solar farm that sits on 445 acres of privately-owned land located off Blue Wing Road south of Loop 410, is the first of seven total solar farms planned throughout Texas as part of the deal. Alamo 1's 167,000 photovoltaic panels will produce enough energy to power 6,600 homes.
Construction has begun on Alamo 2, a 4.4 MW solar farm located beyond 410 east of San Antonio on land owned by the San Antonio River Authority. The Alamo 3 solar farm will produce five MW at a location yet to be determined, Alamo 4 near Brackettville will produce about 40 MW, and Alamo 5, 6 and 7 will be much larger, at least 100 MW (likely more) each at planned facilities in West and North Texas.
Site plan and location options are still being explored for the larger farms, which will make up the bulk of the 400 MW deal, said OCI Solar Power President and CEO Tony Dorazio during a media tour of Alamo 1.
The first two are smaller and located closer to town as requested by CPSE, he said, "So that people of San Antonio can see them quite often ... and get them excited about it."
It's one thing to see the numbers that represent CPSE's aggressive investment in renewable energy (Alamo 1 makes almost 100 MW installed, leaving about 350 MW on the way), it's quite another to see the deep blue ocean of angling panels while driving on Hwy 281 south of downtown.
"It's also part of the education process, too," Dorazio said, pointing to Alamo 1's proximity to local universities and the wealth of knowledge that can be shared between the plant and university-based research institutions.
All projects combined, OCI's costs add up to nearly $1.2 billion, of which Alamo 1 cost about $110 million, Dorazio said. As part of the deal, CPSE will purchase the solar power produced for 25 years. Dorazio expects to "break even" on the solar farms after 10-19 years of operation, depending on the size of the project. Then they'll start making a profit off the investment.
By purchasing the energy instead of installing it themselves, CPSE can take advantage of the low rates that OCI is able to offer due to federal and state rebates, CPSE Executive Vice President Cris Eugster said.
"By 2020, 65 percent of (CPSE) electricity will come from resources that are low or no-carbon emitting – reducing emissions in an amount that's equal to removing more than a million cars from local roads," CPSE CEO Doyle Beneby stated in a press release.
While electricity produced by a solar farm is still more expensive than traditional coal, "the price continues to decrease," said Eugster, standing amid a field of panels. "We're confident that long-term, solar will be more affordable ... and it's providing that power during the times that we need it the most – during those hot summer afternoons."
OCI Solar Power, a subsidiary of OCI Company Ltd. based in South Korea, has headquarters in San Antonio and three international manufacturing partners have followed suit.
- South Korea-based Nexolon Co. Ltd. will provide the panels via its facilities at Brooks City Base.
- Tracks on which the panels are mounted will come from Spain-based Energia Ercam, northeast of downtown near Brooke Army Medical Center. According to Ercam's website: "As part of the contract Ercam is committed to transfer its United States operations from San Francisco to San Antonio."
- DC/AC current inverters from Germany-based Kaco New Energy, near Brooke Army Medical Center.
According to OCI, the company and three manufacturing partners have created 150 permanent jobs and 600 temporary construction jobs in the area since the project began about a year ago.
"As we go on, more and more material will be sourced out of San Antonio," Dorazio said. "We could start to see Texas as a (solar energy supply) hub. It's centrally located."
Projects for the 400 MW deal are expected to be completed by 2017 and will power 10% of San Antonio homes.
Full disclosure: The Arsenal Group conducted a four-month review of CPS Energy communications for the utility starting in June 2012. Monika Maeckle, a former member of the The Arsenal Group and wife of Robert Rivard, now works at CPSE as its Director of Integrated Communications.