As the oil and gas industry struggles to find a balance amidst the coronavirus pandemic, when demand once dropped so low that a barrel of oil was worth less than a penny, solar is shining in 2020. The growth is driven by large-scale projects across the U.S.

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The Holstein Solar Farm

Consider the Holstein solar project in West Texas. The 10,000-acre cattle ranch has been in Garland Richards' family since the 19th century. He once relied on oil wells drilled on the property, but his new 1,300-acre solar farm began operating in July. With 709,000 photovoltaic (PV) panels that generate 200 megawatts of electricity, the farm produces enough power for 40,000 homes.

Richards, a 68-year-old former cowboy, hopes that the revenue from the solar farm will pay the taxes on the rest of his property. "I want to be able to hand the land down to the next generation," he told the Texas Observer. "If I can make enough on 1,300 acres to pay the taxes on 10,000 acres, it's worth it."

“… Oil is depleting, and the market is depleting as well …. When oil is negative $47 a barrel, solar looks pretty good.”
—Rancher Garland Richards

Big Opportunities in a Big Oil State

Abundant sunshine, lots of open land, loose regulations, and an open market for any kind of energy set the stage in West Texas for big energy projects. There are now 13 big solar facilities in Texas that can produce 100 megawatts of power, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA).

The SEIA calculates that the cost of developing solar farms has dropped 40% in Texas in the past five years. Once a farm is built, it is cheaper to operate than gas and coal plants because the fuel is free.

Texas produces far more carbon dioxide than any other state, more than 700 million metric tons a year.

Houston's Government Goes 100 Percent Renewable

The surge in renewable energy is not only apparent in the hinterlands. Houston is now the largest U.S. city government powered solely by renewables. All its operations, from three airports to wastewater treatment facilities to the zoo, are powered 100% by wind and solar.

"Cities are being battered by climate change, and we are the first line of defense," said the city's chief sustainability officer, Lara Cottingham, to the Texas Observer.

Indiana to Double Its PV Capacity

Regulators in Indiana recently approved a proposal by Capital Dynamics and Tenaska to build a 150-megawatt solar installation. Construction of the 1,200-acre Ratts 1 Solar Project, near Petersburg, is slated to begin next summer, creating an anticipated 350 construction jobs.

The project is the latest in a summer of big project announcements for Indiana. The development push will add more than 500 megawatts of utility-scale solar in the coming years, reports PV magazine.

In Virginia, the Largest Solar Project East of the Rockies

When the Ratts 1 Solar Project breaks ground next summer in Indiana, another massive solar project should have reached completion in Spotsylvania County, Virginia. At 620 megawatts, the long-anticipated Spotsylvania Solar Energy Center will be the largest solar project east of the Rockies.

Interesting facts about the center, courtesy of builder Sustainable Power Group (sPower):

  • The center comprises three noncontiguous parcels of land, encompassing 6,350 acres (map).
  • Of the 6,350 acres, at least 3,500 will be devoted to solar farming and at least 2,000 to wilderness.
  • Microsoft will be purchasing 315 megawatts of energy from the center.
  • Most of the center is shielded from public view thanks to flora buffers, setbacks from property lines, and natural topography.
  • When the center reaches its expected end of service in 35 years it cannot be merely abandoned the way old gas and coal plants are. The land must be returned to its wild pre-construction state.

2020 Shaping Up

Let's stop at these three states or else this article will go on for pages and pages. Across the country, 2020 is shaping up to be a strong year for ambitious utility-scale solar projects, highlighting the resiliency and dependability of renewable energy in a time when we have seen the fossil fuel energy industry thrown into imbalance.

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