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A hundred manufacturers and technology-makers will field products

Texas A&M Univ.'s Central Texas branch announced this week a pretty clever way to save on its power costs -- turn nearby unused acreage into the world's largest solar test farm, dubbed the "Center For Solar Energy".

(Note: There are many bigger commercial farms, but Texas A&M is billing this as the biggest farm purely for solar prototyping/R&D.)

Announced by Texas A&M System Chancellor John Sharp and A&M-Central Texas President Marc Nigliazzo, the new farm will be far different from commercial farms, fielding hundreds of solar cell designs from dozens of manufacturers.  Mr. Sharp said he hopes to have over 100 manufacturers and solar technology players onboard for the project, which he thinks could draw in $400-500B USD in research over a five- to six-year span.

Why does the university claim that much investment will be inbound?  It's confident that by making itself the nucleus of all things solar, it will become the favored prooving ground for all manner of technologies that produce power from sunlight from traditional photovoltaics to more novel designs like stirling engines.  It says that a product that would take six years to develop elsewhere should be able to be fully tested in only two years, thanks to this concentration of expertise.

Marc Nigliazzo
Texas A&M-Central Texas President Marc Nigliazz [Image Source: KD Herald]

The farm will be situated on 800 acres in Bell County, and is expected to produce 50 MW.  That's enough to provide 100 percent of the university's power (with grid storage smoothing periods of low production), plus enough juice for 20,000 nearby homes.  The installation will also provide electricity to the nearby Fort Hood military installation, the largest active-duty armored post in the U.S. Armed Services.  Fort Hood officials were on hand at the project kickoff.

A&M Chancellor Sharp brags, "Obama has charged military installations to use 30 to 40 percent of renewable energy on their bases.  With this [center], Fort Hood thinks it will be the first post to achieve that."

The project will cost $600M USD, but most of the costs will be absorbed by venture capitalists, eager to profit off the technologies tested and developed at the site.  As a result, the university says it does not expect to "expend any capital on the project", and in fact expects to save "$250,000 in its first year of center operation."

Center director
Center director Bruce Mercy explains the planned installation. [Image Source: KD Herald]

Students at the university will also gain new options -- "physics and business degrees with an emphasis in renewable energy; and advanced degrees in those same disciplines" will be offered.

So far the primary private-sector collaborator is California-based PPA Partners, LLC, a renewable energy consulting firm.

Sources: Texas A&M [press release], KD Herald, The Eagle

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Solar in Texas is common sense
By Shig on 6/29/2013 12:39:10 PM , Rating: 3
Utilities must be afraid, what if many large institutions build their own power infrastructure? Texas has plenty of land and solar keeps getting cheaper.

The drought in Texas is also forcing solar on them. Natural gas, coal, and nuclear all need a large amount of fresh water for cooling, fresh water they can no longer afford. Fracking also uses a significant amount of fresh water that cannot be easily re-used.

RE: Solar in Texas is common sense
By drycrust3 on 6/29/2013 2:25:39 PM , Rating: 2
Utilities must be afraid, what if many large institutions build their own power infrastructure?

My guess is most large companies would have long term contracts with their power company, so even if there is a solar farm nearby, that doesn't mean a large company or facility will automatically connect up to it.

RE: Solar in Texas is common sense
By Shig on 6/29/2013 6:51:22 PM , Rating: 2
But if solar is cheaper to build, people will realize it and put it up themselves or a company will offer to put a system up for you (solarcity, sunrun, tons more).

At the rate of growth for these solar installing companies, they'll have generating assets at the multiple GW level or several large power facilities, but they'll be distributed all over the place.

By drycrust3 on 6/30/2013 12:01:44 PM , Rating: 2
Solar has a major drawback in that the primary source "turns off" once per day, and is also prone to "fading" when it is "turned on". This means that users will want to have a "fall back" option with their local utility, but that means the utility would have to build their network so it can supply all the solar customers even though they only need electricity on a casual basis, and that cost has to be passed on, meaning prices will go up for everyone else.

RE: Solar in Texas is common sense
By Reclaimer77 on 6/30/2013 4:45:31 PM , Rating: 1
Cheaper to build?

800 acres is 1.25 square miles! Now that might not sound like much to you, but let's think about this. To power one school and a handful of homes with solar power the land required alone is a gigantic investment.

And I'm sorry but that's just a disgusting waste of land mass. Yes in America we can get away with it. But there's a lot of countries where it's not remotely feasible to set aside so much land just for solar panels.

By Masospaghetti on 7/1/2013 10:55:52 AM , Rating: 1
Even assuming 25% capacity factor for these panels (which is pretty conservative) means 300 MWh / day, or 109,500 MWh / year for 1.25 square miles of panels.

That means you would need 49,000 square miles to power the entire United States, which consumes 4300 TWh per year. The US covers 3.79 million square miles. That's 1.2% coverage of land mass.

This is obviously a simplification (you would need some kind of energy storage, for example) but shows that land mass is not really an issue.

By relztes on 7/1/2013 6:57:15 PM , Rating: 2
A handful of homes = 20,000? To be fair, I do think they've overestimated a bit. The average household electricity consumption in Texas is about 1130 kWh/month (or 1550 W). Assuming a capacity factor of 22% (my guess for central Texas), I get 7000 homes total, minus whatever the university would consume.

But regardless, using 800 acres to power 7,000 homes is not a waste of land mass. Do you have any idea how much land it takes to raise livestock or to grow corn for ethanol? If you used that land for corn, for example, assuming 400 gallons per acre as a typical yield, that land could produce about 320,000 gallons of ethanol per year. So those 7000 households have a choice. A year's worth of electricity or 45 gallons of ethanol.

Another way of looking at it is that the total investment is about $750,000 per acre. What fraction of a percent of that is land?

Anyway, it doesn't matter what we think. Solar is already the cheapest source of electricity in a few small markets, and I'd wager that within 20 years (probably sooner), it'll be the cheapest source of electricity in a place like Texas, even if carbon emissions are still free. There is no stopping it.

RE: Solar in Texas is common sense
By m51 on 6/30/2013 10:07:28 AM , Rating: 2
None of these alternative energy sources are competitive with current natural gas. Although there may be special small cases like this one, the vast majority of the power market isn't going away.

Fresh water is not required for natural gas turbine power plants. You can get some efficiency improvement with wet cooling over dry cooling but it's not required.

RE: Solar in Texas is common sense
By Shig on 6/30/2013 1:52:59 PM , Rating: 2
That's simply wrong. It is true that in general natural gas is cheaper in a larger number of regions, but the number of regions where renewables are better is growing every quarter, and it's growing quickly.

This is what solar expansion in Germany looked like. Watch how it grows, because that is currently happening in southern California and Arizona.

By Solandri on 7/1/2013 6:53:52 AM , Rating: 2
Solar's capacity factor in Germany absolutely sucks. It's less than 0.1. That is, if you have 500 MW of solar panels installed, on average they will produce less than 50 MW. By comparison, the average for solar in the U.S. is about 0.145, and up to 0.185 in the desert southwest. Onshore wind's capacity factor is about 0.2-0.25, offshore wind about 0.3-0.4, hydro about 0.4, coal 0.6-0.7, and nuclear 0.9. If you want to compare installation sizes for different power plants, you need to divide by this capacity factor. e.g. If Germany shuts down a 1 GW nuclear reactor hoping to replace it with solar, they'd have to install 9 GW of solar to generate the same amount of electricity.

Except in specialized (off-grid) applications, solar in Germany is just plain. The only reason Germany is using solar is because of politics. Their attempt to block nuclear while expanding renewables has cause them to burn more coal to take up the slack, resulting in an increase in greenhouse gas emissions.

On a cost per kWh generated over the lifetime of the plant, solar is currently about 2-4x more expensive than the alternatives. Wind is about the same as to 1.5x more expensive. So yes there are places where wind makes sense. There are almost no places where solar makes sense, even in the desert. About the only place it's cost-effective is in off-grid applications, and remote areas where electricity is very expensive. e.g. some of the smaller Hawaiian islands where it can be over $0.40 per kWh, vs a national average of $0.12 per kWh. (For comparison, electricity in Germany is around $0.32 per kWh, largely due to the renewable initiatives.)

That said, it sounds like what Texas A&M is trying to do here is attract $600 million in R&D funding for solar. They're not trying to build a commercially viable $600M PV solar farm, they're trying to attract research into solar technology. I don't see any problem with that.

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