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Texas Utility Doubles Large-Scale Solar, Claims It Will Be Coal-Free By 2016

Thanks to investments in natural gas and utility-scale solar energy, El Paso Electric (EPE), a Texas utility company with almost 400,000 customers, announced on Monday that its electricity mix will be free from coal by 2016.

Due to successive investments in large solar projects, EPE has doubled its utility-scale solar collection in less than a year.

“Our west Texas and southern New Mexico region has the right kind of sun for optimal solar energy production, making this region the ‘goldilocks’ in terms of climate, humidity and heat characteristics that allow us to expand our renewable portfolio with cost-effective technologies and reliable energy resources,” said Tom Shockley, Chief Executive Officer at EPE, said in a statement.

The company signed a 20 year power purchase agreement with the Macho Springs solar plant in New Mexico, a 50 megawatt facility, with the capacity to power more than 18,000 homes. According to an agreement signed last year, EPE would buy solar power from Macho Sprints for 5.79 cents a kilowatt-hour, less than half the 12.9 cents that the same amount of power would cost from new coal plants.

In February, EPE signed a 30 year power purchase agreement with Newman Solar to build a 10 megawatt facility in El Paso. It is expected to come online by the end of the year and to power an additional 3,800 homes.

l83738-1EPE plan to sell off its 7% stake in the Four Corners coal plant, located on Navajo Nation land. The plant came in at number 15 on Environment America’s list of the nation’s top 100 dirtiest power plants, emitting 13.8 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions each year.

A significant amount portion of EPE’s electricity is derived from natural gas. The company came under fire last year for its proposal to build a new natural gas power plant in a low-income neighborhood. EPE agreed not to expand beyond its 4 planned units, and claims they will establish a fund for residents to improve the energy efficiency of their homes.

“While we wish the plant was not in our neighborhood, we are very pleased with the settlement agreement, particularly EPE’s agreement not to build additional turbines and possibly install solar panels at the plant,” Ralph Carrasco, the citizens group’s executive director, said in a statement.

EPE’s announcement that it is “well-positioned” for the Environmental Protection Agency’s new regulations, aimed at cutting the carbon pollution from the nation’s existing fossil fuel-fired power plants, came the same day Texas governor Rick Perry joined 8 other Republican governors saying the rule will cost millions of jobs and slow economic growth. The claims however have been widely debunked.

Texas is the top carbon emitter in the country and as the Texas Tribune points out, “Texas officials and politicians have long refused to regulate greenhouse gases.” However the regulations will have a less dramatic effect on Texas, compared to other states that rely more heavily on coal. Texas already has a diverse electricity mix.

“In 2013, natural gas (41 percent) outpaced coal (37 percent) in powering the electric grid covering most of the state,” the Tribune reported, citing the Electric Reliability Council of Texas. “Meanwhile, the state’s wind sector (10 percent) is booming, thanks in large part to multibillion-dollar investments in infrastructure under Perry, while shifting economics has increased interest in Texas’ long-untapped solar power potential.”

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