Solar in Texas: the future looks bright

I don’t know why I bother checking the weather this time of year. Save for the occasional thunderstorm, I can pretty much guarantee that it’s going to be hot and sunny here in Dallas all summer long. As we enter a long stretch of triple-digit highs, most people’s minds are on how to stay cool. For me though, every time I go outside I can’t help but think, “Where are all the solar panels?”

In almost every metric of solar resource availability, Texas is leading by a wide margin, and for many reasons. A large land mass enables plenty of room for utility plants as well as urban sprawl, giving us plenty of parking lots and rooftops for commercial solar applications. Add 232 sunny days a year, and Dallas has massive potential; yet we still don’t see the kind of traction that other areas have.

Why not? It’s not too hard to answer. A combination of historically low energy prices (compared to Hawaii, where energy is expensive and solar has taken off) and other economic and political drivers make it monetarily unfeasible for most buildouts. With a return on investment (ROI) hovering around 5.1%, the project payback timeline of 20 years just doesn’t make sense.

For those of us with the sun in our eyes, the future is actually looking a lot brighter. Just last year 212MW of solar capacity was installed in Texas, representing a 65% increase over 2014. The state is also expected to install over 4500MW over the next five years, a tenfold increase over the previous five. The same industry factors that are helping push solar worldwide – increased public demand, dropping installation and operation costs, and new technologies that increase efficiency and functionality – are driving this growth rate as well.

I am in a lucky position to be on a systems team here at TI where I get to tinker with some of the latest and greatest technologies coming out of our product lines. Part of my job includes keeping an eye on what kind of technology we will see in the market in the next few years. Here’s a few technologies that I’m particularly excited about for solar.

Wideband-gap semiconductors

I’m willing to bet that everyone in the power industry is aware of silicon carbide and gallium nitride switching technologies at this point. These new switching technologies can run at higher voltages, faster switching speeds and higher temperatures, and are pushing the physical limits of power density. Their use in solar is still in its infancy, but we can already see the beginnings of what’s possible via the results of the recent Google Little Box Challenge.

Higher efficiency and more feature-rich inverters

In renewable energy capturing every watt matters. New solar panels keep breaking record levels of capture efficiency, and TI is working to push inverter-conversion efficiency further as well. The TI Designs Single-Phase Inverter Reference Design with Voltage Source and Grid Connected Modes (TIDM-HV-1PH-DCAC) pushes efficiency up to 98% while still keeping total harmonic distortion (THD) low. It’s also a voltage-controlled inverter, helping enable large-scale battery storage.

Energy storage

Speaking of battery storage, some new designs from our safety microcontrollers MCU and battery-management groups are enabling large-scale battery packs to be safer and easier to integrate into a home or business solar system. The TI Designs High Performance MCU for an EV/HEV Battery Management System Reference Design (TIDM-TMS570BMS) enables active management of up to 17 cells of a lithium pack at once, while also adding high levels of system safety. If you’re trying to store this much energy in your garage, you can’t be too safe.

So keep an eye out for technologies like these that will not only be enabling new solar growth in Texas but around the world. For now, I’m going to go enjoy an iced tea outside before it gets too much hotter.

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