Texas grid operator predicts 50-fold increase in solar by 2030

Texas is not a state known for widespread environmental sentiment, and unlike California is also not known for wide-eyed visionaries in the field of energy. For over a century oil and gas have played a strong role in the economy of this “deep-red” state.

Nor are grid operators typically given to bombastic predictions. Thus, when the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) predicts that deployed solar PV inside Texas’ grid will grow 50-fold in the next 15 years, this is a strong indicator for the future of the technology.

ERCOT made the prediction that 13 GW of solar would be installed by 2030 as its “baseline” case in a report released today. It is against this baseline that ERCOT analyzed probable impacts of various options of compliance with the Obama Administration’s new regulation of greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Power Plan (CPP).

In the event of a limit on CO2, a carbon price, or “Regional Haze” rules from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the amount of solar to be deployed would be even higher, at 13.4 GW, 13.7 GW and 14.1 GW respectively. ERCOT also forecasts that only 10.2 GW of solar will be deployed under a scenario of greater use of energy efficiency to meet CPP targets.

Under these scenarios, solar would represent 6-7% of total annual generation. Environment Texas notes that the baseline scenario is substantially higher than the 9.9 GW by 2029 that ERCOT predicted in a 2014 report.

“This recognizes the historically low prices we’re seeing in the solar market today,” said Luke Metzger, director of Environment Texas Research and Policy Center. “It’s a remarkable time for solar, with each new prediction or price beating the previous historic one.”

The increase in solar generation would come as coal and gas plants are retired. Under the baseline and CO2 limit scenarios, 2.3 GW of coal and gas steam plants would go offline by 2030.

This number increases to 6.3 GW under a CO2 price and 7.0 GW with a CO2 price and Regional Haze rule. However, most of the difference would be made up from wind, not solar.

Also, much of the solar is predicted to come online by 2022. While exact numbers were not given, ERCOT estimates that solar will make up 2% of generation on the grid by 2022, which would mean around 4 GW of solar.

Austin and San Antonio have already committed to procuring a combined total of over 1 GW of solar PV through their municipal utilities well before 2022. ERCOT’s report came out a day after Austin’s city council committed to buy power from 162 MW of solar PV under its city goals, which came in at a price of $38-$40 per megawatt-hour.

ERCOT has warned that the level of retirements which will be driven by CO2 compliance could cause reliability issues, especially if multiple unit retirements occur within a short timeframe. The agency also states that the need to maintain reliability on the grid could require curtailment of wind and solar.

Texas maintains a separate electric grid from the other two main U.S. grids, and as such import and export of power in times of surplus and high demand is limited. Many international studies have noted that isolated grids make integration of large amounts of wind and solar harder.

Some of the problems faced may also concern transmission within ERCOT. The grid operator warns of “localized transmission reliability issues” under a situation of multiple unit retirements, and notes that it takes at least five years for new transmission projects to move from initial planning to completion.