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What’s the Future of Power in Texas? Two Baylor Professors Discuss Options

Waco has more than doubled its solar generation capacity in just two years—and the city is now home to 5.8 megawatts of solar capacity total, around 41 watts per person from that type of renewable energy, according to an organization called Environment Texas Research & Policy Center. A July 2022 Texas Monthly article reported that solar “bailed out” the Texas power grid in a summer of record-breaking heat. What’s the future in energy for Waco and the state?

That’s a question we can decide, said Ryan McManamay, Baylor University assistant professor of environmental science.

“Texas’ landscape in energy development will be very interesting in coming decades,” he added. “There’s ample opportunity for growth in renewables—energy sources that aren’t depleted by use.”

In fact, while the state’s power grid is still primarily powered by fossil fuel sources such as natural gas, we have the potential to conserve our electricity use and evaluate which energy sources, or combinations thereof, power our homes and buildings with a lower footprint, McManamay said.

“With all energy technologies, you have to select the lesser of evils,” he noted. “For instance, to produce solar panels, we need to mine for silica. Solar farms also take up a great deal of land. In class and in my lab, we look at how to provide a balance of the most environmentally benign solutions for energy.”

“There’s ample opportunity for growth in renewables—energy sources that aren’t depleted by use.”
–Ryan McManamay, Baylor University assistant professor of environmental science

Options for that balance are increasing. In 2021, Texas’ production of power from solar cells that convert sunlight directly into power—solar photovoltaic (PV)-sourced power—was second only to California’s, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA). Renewable resources provided around a quarter of in-state electricity net generation in the Lone Star State in 2021, also according to the EIA. In this case, “net” means the amount of gross electricity produced minus that used to operate the power plant or other production means.

That same year, the state led the nation in wind-powered electricity generation, producing more than a quarter of the U.S. total, according to EIA. The air-generated power source accounts for 4/5 of the state’s renewable resource generation. Also in 2021, wind fulfilled a fifth of Texas’ state generation of power at the utility scale of a megawatt or larger, providing more in-state power than coal for the second consecutive year.

Between December 2020 and December 2021, solar capacity at the state’s large- and small-scale (less than 1 megawatt) facilities almost doubled, rising from 5,987 to 10,329 megawatts. Solar energy accounted for about 3 percent of the state’s total electricity generation in 2021, according to EIA.

“Solar isn’t exactly keeping the Texas power grid going, but it helps,” said W. Mack Grady, Baylor professor, electrical and computer engineering, who specializes in electric power and renewable energy. Because solar peaks at midday, it can produce energy to cool afternoon heat. And in areas of the state with less cloud cover, power from the sun often performs better than wind during the afternoon. This is because breezes increase in evening after heat begins to subside, said Grady.

Both wind and solar produce intermittent power—meaning their energy cannot be easily stored and can be strong or weak according to location. For instance, solar farms often perform well in far West Texas, but can be less powerful in areas with clouds.

Grady and McManamay often favor rooftop solar over farms.

“I think solar should be installed in areas where it provides the best solutions. I’m not a proponent of fossil [fuels], but they are more energy dense than solar,” said McManamay. “Powering a large part of our electricity needs with solar would require significant land assets.”

In many cases, putting solar on top of buildings “makes the most sense,” said McManamay, pointing out that in that case the panels take up less food-production land and can help decrease energy bills for a household.

Mariana Ambrose, a former student in McManamay’s class, Environment and Energy, was inspired by an assignment to form a sustainable plan for Baylor University to generate its own electricity with renewable or non-renewable energy technologies. While vice president of the campus group Students for Environmental Equity, she met with the Baylor Senate and set in motion a plan to prepare potential scenarios for installing solar on campus roofs.

“Baylor has a strong environmental science/studies program, so adding solar to campus roofs would be a wonderful opportunity for the department to take steps towards a more renewable campus,” said Ambrose. “The project will hopefully set a precedent for other Texas college campuses as well.”

While McManamay is a fan of existing federal incentives for household solar, he said entering a 25-year mortgage payment with a solar company is often not a great idea.

“If you get a 25-year solar mortgage, the panels may only be good for that length of time. If you sell your house after that, you might have old and ineffective solar panels that wouldn’t help its resale value,” the environmental science professor added.

If they’re able to manage it, homeowners can save money by buying panels outright, he said. Alternatively, utilities may work with customers to provide less expensive solar in an area.

For instance, McManamay refers his classes to Houston’s Sunnyside Solar Farm, a project to build solar panels on 240 acres of former landfill. The utility working with the farm plans to provide electricity at a lower cost to marginalized communities in the area, he said.

“If utilities agree, we can lower the cost of electricity provision,” he noted.

Both professors said our electricity use has soared in recent decades, and we could decrease it.

“What a lot of Texans worry about is the cost of electricity,” McManamay noted. “But the number one way for us to be sustainable is to cut our electricity demand—that’s the first thing we all need to be doing. And ideally, our homes would be built with insulation and current, weatherized windows. Neighbors tell me they keep their thermostats at 71. I keep mine at 78, because I can’t lower it without paying astronomical prices.”

Grady noted that the United States uses more electricity per capita than Western Europe.

The professors think Texas has other energy options as well.

Grady mentioned the efficiency of nuclear power, pointing out that France sources more than 70 percent of its power from splitting atoms. Texas’ two operating nuclear power plants provided 8 percent of the state’s electricity net generation in 2021, according to EIA.

McManamay’s lab has also looked into ways to maximize electricity generation from existing infrastructure, such as retrofitting river dams in the Waco area to provide hydropower, he said.

“As a non-intermittent energy source, hydropower is a way we could pursue renewable resources to lower electricity costs,” he said.

Grady and McManamay would like to have solar panels on their roofs to lower costs a bit.

“While I couldn’t pay for everything with solar on my roof, I could power my computer and TV, and provide backup power in case of a blackout,” said Grady.

Adding solar to campus roofs would be a wonderful opportunity.”
–Mariana Ambrose

Using the existing infrastructure of roofs is exciting, agreed McManamay.

“I like that we can reduce the power load of buildings, making more use of the space they occupy in the landscape,” he said.

In the long run, a balanced choice in our energy use can come down to our households. “You live in a home with a certain amount of energy consumption,” McManamay said. “Where does that energy come from? Finding out and knowing is important.”

Statewide, our energy scenario will continue to shift in coming decades, he said. “This will happen as independent power producers and the public take ownership of their own electricity consumption and generation.”

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