Solar is ready to answer S.A.'s energy needs

November 21, 2009

By Lanny Sinkin
Special to San Antonio Express-News

With public and official support for the nuclear project melting down, the time has come for a comprehensive discussion about options.

One abundant and free fuel is solar energy. You don't have to worry about supply shortages, price fluctuations, foreign sources, nuclear proliferation or national security.

Solar is one of the fastest technologies to put in place. A large solar plant can go from commitment to completion in a year and half. Solar on a home rooftop can be completed in a matter of days.

The size of a solar plant can be adapted to electrical needs. This rapid deployment and flexibility mean that energy choices can be changed if a new technology or a breakthrough in existing technology takes place.

The cost of pursuing solar is dropping rapidly. Mass production, large installations, raw material price reductions, rapid innovation and major public support make solar more economically attractive every day.

Sempra Generation, a California-based utility, recently invested in a 10-megawatt solar farm that produces power at a cost of 7.5 cents per kilowatt hour. New technologies are projecting costs down to 5 cents per kilowatt hour in the very near term.

Power plants such as these demonstrate that solar energy has finally reached competitiveness with fossil fuels and nuclear. For example, the most recent estimate for the proposed new CPS nuclear reactors is 13 to 15 cents per kilowatt hour. And solar is only getting better at competing.

As a result, mass installations of solar are happening. In California, a solar project planned by Pacific Gas and Electric on 6,000 acres of Mojave Desert land will generate 553 megawatts of electricity yearly - the equivalent of powering 400,000 homes - and is expected to be generating power for grid use by 2011.

Rooftop solar units are multiplying rapidly. Ten years ago, there were only 500 installations in California. Today there are nearly 50,000. San Antonio's Mission Verde plan calls for just such distributed energy systems to be put in place. With less than 50 now, our potential is untapped.

Solar's potential as a baseload generator has also reached practical application. Most concentrated solar technologies today can potentially provide at least six hours of thermal storage. Two solar plants in Spain will have six hours storage, and a third will have 15 hours storage. A 289-megawatt plant in Arizona will also have this storage capacity. SolarReserve is applying for a permit to build a 150-megawatt solar farm that will store solar energy in molten salt and use that heat to generate electricity for seven hours after the sun goes down.

The European Union has committed 7 billion euros to building hydrogen-storage facilities. Other options include compressed air, batteries, capacitors, flywheels and hydrogen fuel cells. Solutions to the storage problem are already in place, with improved solutions coming along in a few years.

Solar has not only become financially viable; it is operationally viable, as well. The barriers to solar are fewer than ever, and as time goes on, solar will only become increasingly attractive. The solar option is ready to answer the challenge of global warming and San Antonio's energy needs.

The CPS Energy STEP program is already proving the tremendous energy savings that result from energy-efficiency measures. The first $11.5 million saved 40 megawatts we don't have to build. Combining an aggressive energy-efficiency program with a significantly increased commitment to solar and other renewables can take San Antonio into a sustainable future and restore confidence in CPS Energy's leadership.

Lanny Sinkin is executive director of Solar San Antonio.

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