04/05/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Texas-Sized Solar: Austin Approves Plan For Largest US Solar Installation

Austin, Texas, is getting closer to its self-imposed goal of using more renewable energy, and creating jobs in the bargain. The Texas-sized solar plant being planned would be the largest in the Unite States, according to Austin Energy.

The Council approved an agreement under which the City's municipally-owned electric utility, Austin Energy, will purchase all of the electricity produced over a 25-year term by a 30 megawatt (MW) solar project to be built on city-owned property located about 20 miles from downtown Austin.

Gemini Solar Development Company, LLC, one of 15 companies competing for the massive project, will construct, own and manage the solar facility. The project of photovoltaic solar panels will span approximately 320 acres, producing energy each year sufficient to power about 5,000 homes. Austin Energy will pay about $10 million per year for the power.

The solar project represents a major step towards fulfilling a Council goal to develop 100 MW of solar capacity for Austin by 2020. The Council also has set a goal that 30 percent of the power delivered to customers by Austin Energy by 2020 will come from renewable resources. Construction on the project is expected to begin in the first quarter of 2010 and completed by the end of that year. The project will result in at least 600 local construction jobs.

The Austin American-Statesman said that critics remain -- they're worried about the financial
aspects of the plan, like how much the power will cost.

By unanimous vote, the council approved a partnership with Gemini Solar Development Co. to build and operate the facility and sell all its power to Austin at $10 million a year for 25 years. City officials say it would help them get closer to the city's goal of using more renewable energy.

Other questions remain that critics said they would raise at the meeting. The city won't say how much the power from the plant would cost, although most estimates are around 16.5 cents a kilowatt hour -- more than most other types of power. Even that calculation is foggy, though, because federal tax credits could reduce the construction cost, thus making the electricity cheaper. But the city isn't sure how much cheaper. The credits weren't factored into Gemini Solar Development's pitch.

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