What a difference 10 years make.
In 2003, getting ready for the 10th anniversary of the U.S.-Mexico Border Energy Forum in Austin, we noticed that national wind and solar conferences were also taking place there. We organized a “Journey to the Center of the Sustainable Earth” campaign to call attention to Texas’ potential for innovative energy leadership.
Ten years later, Texas is way past potential leadership, as we get ready for the 20th anniversary of the Border Energy Forum, in San Antonio on November 6-8. The Forum alternates each year between the United States and Mexico, and it now has been held at least once in each of the 10 U.S. and Mexican border states.
Once again, a collection of statewide, national and international energy events is highlighting our region’s prominence and potential. The week after the Forum, the Texas Renewable Energy Industries’ Association annual conference will take place in San Antonio while the national Defense Energy Summit is held in Austin.
In December, the Clean Air through Energy Efficiency (CATEE) conference is scheduled for San Antonio. And, just as it did 10 years ago, the Renewable Energy Roundup & Green Living Fair precedes all of these events as it fills up downtown Fredericksburg at the end of the September,
Ten years ago, however, it would have been hard to find any predictions that Texas would be the number one wind state by far, with well over 12,000 Megawatts (MW) of wind generating capacity and more expected to come online with the upcoming completion of the multi-billion dollar transmission expansion.
There was talk of natural gas production in the Barnett Shale in Fort Worth but little if any expectation for the huge Eagle Ford Shale of South Texas. The Eagle Ford Consortium’s fall conference is scheduled for October 28-30 in Corpus Christi, with a slogan of “Where the South Texas Energy Triangle Meets the World.”
And, in 2003, the solar progress that was in store for Austin and San Antonio was still way in the future. A recent report from Environment Texas Research & Policy Center found that Texas was 13th among U.S solar states, well below leaders like Arizona and New Jersey. But the report singled out Austin and San Antonio for stepping up to account for the bulk of Texas’ solar generation.
Environment Texas’ “Reaching for the Sun” report earlier this year tracked 52.6 MW for the San Antonio area and 41.3 MW for Austin in a total of nearly 110 MW statewide. That is a major change from 10 years ago, when a survey by a University of Texas student identified 6 MW for Texas, surprising some industry experts who didn’t think it was that high.
Austin, with its hipster reputation fueled by the South by Southwest film, music, and interactive conferences (SXSW), “Keep Austin Weird” slogan, and high-tech prominence, attracted most of the attention as solar energy gathered momentum. San Antonio tends to be known more as a tourism and military center with a blue-collar feel.
Yet San Antonio attracted national and international attention when its municipal utility, CPS Energy, announced it was seeking 400 MW of solar energy with the twist that a key part of selecting the winning bid would be willingness to locate job-creating solar manufacturing in the city.
In July 2012, CPS and South Korea-based OCI Solar Power signed a 25-year power purchase and economic development agreement providing for solar power for almost 70,000 households with a new corporate headquarters in San Antonio and more than 800 professional and technical jobs.
CPS is the largest municipally owned natural gas and electric utility in the country and serves about twice as many customers as Austin Energy, which is electric only. The cities are 80 miles apart. While the utilities in both cities have taken a prominent role in building support and customers for their renewable portfolios, especially wind, for at least the past decade, perhaps nothing so far had been quite as dramatic as the 400 MW solar plan from San Antonio.
Karl Rábago, a former Austin Energy top executive who now heads his own clean energy consulting firm, said the two utilities have taken slightly different approaches. “But one way or another, there’s going to be a lot more solar,” he said. “They really are complementary. Texas is a great opportunity.”
Austin has its own utility-scale solar generation with the Webberville 35 MW project just east of the city limits and rumors that more may be on the way, either nearby or taking advantage of the stronger solar resource in West Texas. The Austin emphasis, however, has been by and large more on residential and business incentives for rooftop solar arrays.
“Our goal in Austin was to create a market from the ground up,” Rábago said, while the San Antonio approach would be from “the top down. They’ve put 10 years of demand on the table. If they follow through, they’ve got a really big deal.”
Both cities have demonstrated strong support for distributed generation, generally the placement of solar arrays on large and small rooftops close to where the energy will be consumed, as well as utility-scale projects that tend to be larger and on open land.
Texas’ residential and commercial rooftops have by no means been ignored over the years in San Antonio, where solar pioneer Bill Sinkin celebrated his 100th birthday in May. His son, Lanny, has taken over as executive director of the Solar San Antonio non-profit organization that works to call attention to CPS rebates for residences and businesses.
Lanny Sinkin said the two cities certainly are keeping an eye on each other’s solar progress.
“It’s a friendly competition. We’re always joking about it with our Austin colleagues,” he said. “Each city is trying to compete to be the solar leader for the nation.”
The Mission Verde Alliance in San Antonio includes solar in its effort to promote the city as a center for clean technology use and development. Scott Storment, its director, said the size of the municipal utility plays a major part in the opportunity for national leadership.
“Why can’t it happen here?” he asked. “Our strength is our size.
Rebecca Armendariz Klein, a former chair of the Public Utility Commission of Texas who now heads her own energy firm, said Texas “as of today doesn’t have all that much solar, but it has a lot of potential.”
She knows both cities well, as an Austin resident who was born in San Antonio and went to law school there. “Both San Antonio and Austin are leading the charge,” she said.
Steve Wiese, a former board president of the Texas Renewable Energy Industries Association, chaired a Local Solar Advisory Committee in Austin that recommended the city adopt a goal of 400 MW of solar energy by 2020, at least half of it locally generated.
“I don’t see it as a race, but there’s no question that cities compare themselves to each other” he said. “Austin got an earlier start; San Antonio suddenly went ‘Ah Hah’ and got behind the big stuff.”
Soll Sussman is a freelance writer and energy consultant who lives in Austin. He is coordinator for the annual U.S.-Mexico Border Energy Forum, and helped organize the Journey to the Center of the Sustainable Earth campaign while working for the Texas General Land Office 10 years ago.
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 CPS as its Director of Integrated Communications. This disclosure was published Sept. 26, 2013in response to an Express-News inquiry.