The 50-megawatt solar thermal power plant will be built on Indian soil, half the world away from Texas.
But it’s also an Abilene project, with Lauren Engineers and Constructors taking the lead in designing and building the power plant, according to company officials. "We’ll do all of the design work out of this office," said Clint Rosenbaum, the company’s vice president of engineering, at the company’s Abilene headquarters.
Locally, there may be only a few solar installations harnessing sunlight for tasks that might otherwise require the burning of fossil fuels. But if solar energy has yet to have a big breakthrough in the Big Country — especially when compared to the wind farms that have become a common sight in West Texas — it’s not for a lack of effort by some state lawmakers. In the last legislative session, more than 60 bills related to solar energy were filed, according to a report by the House Research Organization for the Texas House of Representatives.
Those efforts, mainly new incentives for consumers or those in the industry, resulted in few new laws or widely used ways to spur solar growth in Texas. But many are tantalized by the potential noted by the report’s authors: by the state’s own estimate, its wide-open skies have more solar resource potential than any other state. However, Lauren Engineers and other Abilene-based companies don’t have to wait for Texas lawmakers to begin work on projects under way outside the state or country.
Nestled on the eighth floor of the Enterprise Building, the company has been involved in solar installations since 2008. "We have been getting more and more inquiries about it," said Paul Lewis, an owner in the business, which also does small-scale wind turbine installations and sells window film designed to help control indoor temperatures.
Few local residents have been willing to spend the money for photovoltaic systems that can cost $18,000 to $25,000 up front, however. Such systems use semiconductor materials to transform sunlight into electricity. To recoup the cost, Lewis said it currently takes about 12 to 16 years — an improvement from the 16 to 22 years it took about five years ago to recover the investment, he noted.
Although the company is in talks with a San Angelo meat-processing business about an installation, Lewis said the company unexpectedly has found a market for its products in Belize. He said he traveled with members of the Houston Chamber of Commerce to the Central American country in 2008, giving leaders in Belize a demonstration of solar technology.
Lewis explained that rolling blackouts are the norm for the impoverished country, and said his demonstration apparently caught the attention of officials interested in providing more electricity for Belize’s residents. Now, after several trips to the country, Lewis said he is working on a solar installation that will be used to power a school for boys, and he’s optimistic about landing work to help power a hospital. "A little bit of electrical power will go an enormously long way toward helping them," Lewis said.
Lauren Engineers, founded in the 1980s, has always been in the power industry, Rosenbaum said. Only recently, however, has the company become involved with solar projects. The company first tackled a solar project in 2005, taking over a role to design and construct a 64-megawatt plant in Boulder City, Nev., known as Nevada Solar One. Lauren landed the job because of its work in Nevada and also its experience in the steam power generation industry.
Lauren had about 1,000 workers involved with the approximately 16-month project, including about 150 in Abilene. Design work was done locally, as was some pipe fabrication needed for the project. Unlike some solar energy plants that involve creating electricity directly from sunlight, the Nevada project is known as a concentrating solar power plant. Pipes carry fluid chosen for its properties related to temperature. Carefully positioned mirrors focus sunlight on the pipes, warming the fluid, which can heat up to about 750 degrees Fahrenheit — or more than three times the boiling point of water.
The heat creates steam that powers a turbine, ultimately resulting in the generation of electricity. The company also was heavily involved with another project in Florida that began operating last month, producing 75 megawatts of power. "It’s an important part of our business," said Les Hammond, chief financial officer for Lauren, of the company’s solar projects.
For the energy grid that powers most of the state, coal and natural gas still provide more than 75 percent of the energy load. But while the share of energy produced by wind has increased to 7.8 percent from less than 5 percent in 2008, solar energy has provided less than 1.5 percent of the power load. Lauren Engineers hasn’t worked on a project producing more than 75 megawatts of power — despite the Florida project having an area of approximately 1.1 square miles. By comparison, the proposed coal-fired Tenaska plant in Nolan County would produce about 600 megawatts (enough to power about 600,000 homes).
Compared with other states, Texas ranked 13th in solar energy production in 2009, according to the Texas House of Representatives research group, with only 8.3 megawatts of electricity-generating capacity. That number will increase, if it hasn’t already. A 27-megawatt concentrating solar plant called Western Ranch is scheduled to be online as soon as this year. Municipal utilities in San Antonio and Austin also have inked agreements to purchase power from photovoltaic solar plants.
As close as San Angelo, solar installations are in some state of development. Terra-Gen, a New York-based company, has announced plans to build a solar farm near the city.
It costs more for energy to be produced using solar technology than with fossil-fuel based techniques. The research organization for the House of Representatives estimated last year that the cost of electricity from concentrated solar plants — like those built by Lauren Engineers — is about 12 to 19 cents per kilowatt hour. The cost of electricity from photovoltaic plants is estimated to be from 9 to 19 cents per kilowatt hour.
In contrast, electricity produced by a coal plant only costs 7 to 15 cents per hour, though the report described solar technologies as "increasingly cost-competitive with conventional generation technologies." "Why should I pay more on my electric bill so my neighbor can put solar panels on the roof? The problem is, there’s a good answer to that, but it doesn’t fit on a bumper sticker," said state Rep. Mark Strama last month while addressing a group comprised mainly of regional workforce leaders in Abilene.
Strama, a Democrat from Austin, has proposed a government loan program that would help homeowners purchase solar cells. He told the Abilene crowd that some incentive is needed to get people to purchase solar power installations. "There’s no rational reason to buy solar panels today. It’s a nonsensical consumer decision, because if you buy them next year, they’ll be cheaper and more efficient," Strama said.
It’s unclear how budget woes will affect any incentives already in place. The Associated Press reported this month that a tax exemption for Texas corporations with an interest in solar energy devices cost the state about $1 million in tax revenue over the past two years. Strama sounded a note of optimism last month, however.
"I think ambition was one of the things that cost us progress. I think we can get a significant investment in putting solar panels on schools around the state," he said. No electricity is produced by the solar energy system at the women’s softball field house on the campus of Abilene Christian University. Instead, the sun’s rays serve to heat water used in showers and throughout the building.
"It works great," said Zane Dennis, the university’s executive director of facilities and campus development. Dennis wasn’t at the university when the project was installed within the past two or so years. "From what I’ve been told, they felt like that was the right thing to do. They wanted to be good stewards, so they chose to go out and be a little proactive," Dennis said.
He said there is early talk about a solar project at the university’s Rhoden Farm. "We’re talking about it," Dennis said. "It’s not even close to being in the design phase." Ray Ussery recently installed four electricity-producing panels on his cabin, about 15 miles south of Abilene. "It lasts all night long, unless I have just consecutive cloudy days," Ussery said.
But he makes concessions to use less electricity, like having a propane refrigerator. Ussery said he chose the solar installation after being told that it would cost him about $27,000 to $30,000 to have his home hooked up to an electricity grid. With the purchase of the solar cells and a propane-powered generator, "I’ve come in probably around 20 grand," Ussery said. "The biggest thing I’ve learned about it is, I’ve had to conserve," Ussery said.
Bill Core with Instrument Maintenance Co. said he’s looked into getting solar panels for his business, a wholesaler of pressure flow and temperature equipment for industry. "As a business owner … my default measurement is always money. Can I save money?" Core said. But he said that he’s also considered getting solar panels for his home, adding, "I am always looking for ways to save our Earth, to make it green and live greener."
He said he has yet to have the economics explained to him in a way that he can understand if it makes sense as an investment. "That’s why I put it on hold. I haven’t decided. I’m just looking," Core said. State Rep. Strama told the Abilene crowd one reason why he is an advocate for renewable energy and technological innovation.
"I think it’s important because it’s integral to jobs and economic development," Strama said. By one measure, Texas had 3,068 solar jobs in 2010, according to an estimate published by The Solar Foundation, a nonprofit group that promotes solar energy. Nationally, the group estimated that there were 135,458 solar jobs.
Some in the state seem to agree that solar provides a career path in Texas. Last year, Texas State Technical College in Sweetwater began a solar training program. Lauren officials estimated that 1,000 workers were involved in the Nevada project and another 1,000 worked on the Florida project.
Rosenbaum said the company’s work has made it a leader for a certain type of concentrating solar plants, those that use a parabolic trough design to arrange mirrors and focus sunlight. The India project is the company’s first foray into that country, and one of the few projects it has tackled outside North America. It is working with a private developer, which Rosenbaum declined to name. Rosenbaum said the company also is pursuing other solar projects in the United States. But none in Texas.