Amazing things can happen when you bring 150 or so like-minded individuals into a gridlocked Houston hotel with no reason to go outside to commute anywhere. You listen to each other, stop to think, and try to imagine a future where anything is possible.
At the GridNEXT conference, hosted by the Texas Renewable Energy Industries Alliance (TREIA), we explored gridlock issues of another sort – energy transmission planning in Texas, where we’re known for high wind penetration and slow but growing solar adoption – all via an independent grid where consumers in deregulated areas have the power to choose their electricity providers. In many ways, Texas is the perfect laboratory for all forms of renewable development, and our experience here can be instructive to other early-stage renewable states.
A few highlights of the conference that could serve as a blueprint for other states:
Welcome to the free market. Texas is the largest independent energy market in the country. As the only state in the contiguous U.S. to manage its own grid, Texas provides an ideal testing ground for new technologies, marketing strategies, and consumer adoption theories. Energy retailers make customer acquisition an art form here, and consumers usually (thought not always) stand to gain from this competition. Witness the recent move by TXU to offer its customers free wind energy at night. Fully 30 percent of TX consumers live in districts where utilities are municipally or cooperatively owned, giving consumers a local voice in energy issues.
Wind is only the beginning. Texas has been a leader in wind since the mid-2000s when a group of politicking renewable energy advocates worked with legislators, regulators and ERCOT (operator of the TX grid) to approve a 3,600-mile transmission line into the wind-heavy sectors of the state. These days, those lines are nearly at capacity. And while Texas currently has less than 200MW of large-scale solar, ERCOT projects as much as 10-12 GW of solar-generating capacity by 2029. One interesting example is the merchant power Barilla Solar plant built by First Solar in West Texas. A merchant solar plant, Barilla was built without the benefit of a long-term electricity contract–demonstrating that solar can be competitive in the TX wholesale market.
Power is inherently local, as the city of Georgetown TX proves by joining a small cadre of other communities across the state making huge strides in renewable energy. Just north of green-hearted Austin, Georgetown isn’t the most surprising story (even though it’s notoriously conservative). Denton, TX – who fought hydraulic fracking and lost – vowed to go 70 percent renewable by 2019.
Grid modernization is real, and it’s happening now. Bryan Hannegan, assistant director of systems integration for NREL, said it best: “The grid is the river that runs through all of our renewable energies.” In Texas, that river is overflowing. Grid modernization may not seem like a sexy topic, but every presenter at this conference got it: Moving to a distributed, interactive, nimble power grid is as critical to economic growth as the distributed Internet was in the early 1990s. Smart meters got an early start in Texas – providing a huge opportunity for measuring and analyzing demand response. The generation who works from anywhere, and demands information and power everywhere, will not be held back by a little thing called centralized utility control.
Community solar is an extension of the sharing economy – and it’s ready for primetime. Four people from very different companies – NRG Home solar, Solar City, Clean Energy Collective, and Austin Energy – presented different but valid community solar programs. All had one thing in common: Customers choose community solar to save money, but many also do it to be part of a shared economy. “New energy millennials” — the emerging demographic leaders who share Ubers and airbnbs and yes, sometimes even phone chargers at the airport — want to have solar. When millions of people are introduced to the idea that they don’t have to have equipment on their roof or a hefty upfront price to be part of the solution, they’re going to sign up.
Utilities are figuring it out. Some of the most forward-thinking utilities in Texas are city-owned or coops like the Pedernales Coop, who is breaking the model of utility death spiral by offering on-bill financing for residential solar in their territory. A homeowner can install up to $20k in solar for low-finance rates, and pay for it right on their bill. Smart utilities are on board for community solar too, because it enables them to engage with their highly valuable and fickle customers. Watch for more of this across the state, and U.S.
Storage is here – almost. The technology for ongrid battery storage is already available, but still too expensive. But if you look at the ramp of solar prices in the last five years, we are on the cusp of another adoption hockey stick — which may be especially interesting for younger consumers more open to clean technologies. Between the high-net worth individuals buying Teslas with PowerWalls (younger than you think) and the retirees seeking disaster preparedness, there’s a big market for storage, just waiting to be sold.
We’ll keep our eyes trained on Texas, so if you’re interested in future updates, sign up for our blog.