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San Antonio Utility Seeks Innovative Backup For 900 MW Of New Solar

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San Antonio’s municipally owned electric and gas utility, CPS Energy, is determined not to just talk the talk on innovation and alternative energy. It is committed to walking the walk.

It has a plan, both ambitious and careful, to install 900 megawatts (MW) of solar power and 50 MW of battery storage. It is also seeking additional 500 MW of firming capacity to back up the new solar capacity for days when it isn’t available and at night. It is a plan as bold as any out there, and it turns the utility into something of a laboratory for future creativity in the electric space.

CPS Energy, like other utilities, is leaning into a strong environmental wind which isn’t just against coal — the largest pollution source associated with the generation of electricity — but against natural gas as well. Gas has about half the emissions of coal and doesn’t contain other things like mercury and mountains of hard-to-manage ash.

There is irony here: Those who were around in the 1970s and 1980s can remember when environmentalists put nuclear power in their sights and promoted coal for power generation, particularly using fluidized bed boilers.

Environmentalists’ Demands

Now the environmental community has new bêtes noires: coal and gas. They are demanding that utilities abandon coal completely and follow that by shutting down gas generators, even if, as is the case with CPS Energy, they are used mostly for peaking and aren’t in constant use.

CPS Energy is caught up in this maelstrom of criticism. It still has some remaining coal-fired generation, although much has been retired. It replaced that generation with gas turbines which are far less polluting.

But now environmental groups, led by the Sierra Club in San Antonio, are clamoring for the utility to abandon gas and coal immediately. They want closure just like that, bang, without regard to reliability of service in one of the fastest-growing areas in the country. They have been attacking the utility and its leadership, President and CEO Paula Gold-Williams and COO Cris Eugster.

In fact, CPS Energy already has the most solar generation in Texas — 600 MW of utility-scale solar — and is planning to add an astounding 900 MW of solar, making it the premier solar generator in the country.

But solar must be backed up with firming power.

Last summer, CPS Energy issued an unusual RFI (request for information) and got a global response – nearly 200 responses from vendors and investors spread across 13 countries — on renewable supply and firming technology. These responses offered a cornucopia of new storage alternatives and emerging generation technologies for grid resiliency.

At the end of November, CPS Energy moved ahead and sent out an RFP (request for proposals) to turn some of these ideas into reality, as part of what it calls its FlexPOWER Bundle. These included a panoply of options for storage and maybe new generation including hydrogen, compressed air, liquid air, pumped storage in abandoned mineshafts, kinetic storage with flywheels, and other truly creative ways to have power available when the sun isn’t shining at full strength. 

CPS Energy is on its way to the greenest-of-green futures with its planned solar installation. It hopes to select and award contracts towards the end of 2021, but will try to bring this forward to midyear, according to Eugster.

But, as Gold-Williams says, it isn’t as easy as some pressure groups think because “gas turbines are designed to run for 25 years and are financed accordingly.” She says it is difficult to walk away from big investments and to invest new money in new projects without regard to the stranded investment.

Gold-Williams explains the cost penalty of abandoning older units before they have reached their logical life’s end like this: “When we decided to shut down some older coal units, they still had about 15 years of life left in them. But we decided to do it, and it was embraced by the community. And we decided to buy some much younger gas units.

“These are overly complicated moves with about 100 supporting decisions that also had to be made.”

She said the utility is preparing to shut down other old units and will replace them with the new solar generation when it comes online.

Solar’s Heavy Land Demand

Because 900 MW of solar is such a large addition, Gold-Williams believes the contract might have to be split up among several vendors simply to satisfy the land demand. The Department of Energy estimates that it takes 4 acres for 1 MW of solar installation. Even for land-rich Texas, that may present a challenge for a single vendor.

CPS Energy has been steadily evolving its generation mix. In fiscal year 2018, coal accounted for 34 percent of the mix, gas 15 percent, nuclear 35 percent, and renewables a little over 7 percent. In fiscal year 2020, coal fell to 21 percent, gas a little more than doubled to 33 percent, nuclear fell to 29 percent, and renewables doubled to 15 percent.

Even so, Gold-Williams is adamant that the utility can’t shut down all its coal generation just now, neither for economic reasons nor for reasons of security of supply and reliability 24/7/365.

Before the universal slowdown caused by the coronavirus pandemic, San Antonio was one of the fastest-growing cities in Texas. Gold-Williams and Eugster emphasize that they need a staged withdrawal from fossil fuel to keep everyone supplied with power without interruption.

Already, the gas turbines are being used primarily for peaking during the summer and winter peaks, Eugster says. During these times, he says, they run from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Opponents of CPS Energy and its fuel mix want control of the utility moved from its board, which now has supervisory authority, to the city council. There, opponents think they can force the hand of the utility’s management and get abrupt resource change, whatever the cost in service and reliability.

Even 900 MW of new solar is not enough for some sun worshippers.

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