Texas Quietly Gains a Place in the Sun

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"There are two things Texas has plenty of: hot air and hot sun."

Surely some wiseacre is on record observing that there are two things Texas has plenty of: Hot air and hot sun.

But Texas may eventually have the last laugh. The state, which already leads the nation in turning wind into electricity, has quietly begun to harvest sunlight on a large scale.

Its first solar farm, an array of 215,000 photovoltaic panels that capture sun rays and turn them into power, went on line Thursday in San Antonio. Statewide, at least six more projects are in earlier stages of development.

"We have some of the best solar radiation in the country," said a hopeful Luke Metzger of Environment Texas, "just a ton of sun." If all seven Texas projects come on line, they would have the combined capacity to produce 194.4 megawatts of electricity.

Until the big plants are up and adding electricity to the consumer grid, however, that power remains hypothetical. Tapping it will be controversial as long as solar is expensive relative to sources, like coal and natural gas.

Yet proponents insist solar power has a bright future here, with economic as well as environmental benefits.

State Rep. Mark Strama, D-Austin, is working on a new package of legislation for the 2011 session, but it could face an even tougher test in the face of a budget crunch and a presumably more fiscally conservative Legislature.

Others warn that without government support, Texas is at risk of losing the next generation of energy jobs to other states, despite Texas' deep roots in energy and its aggressive development of wind.

Texas' first solar farm commenced commercial operations Thursday on approximately 140 acres off Interstate 37 in southeastern San Antonio, said Raul Cardenas, renewable/emissions program manager for the city-owned CPS Energy.

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