SPECIAL REPORT: Solar Power in the Big Bend Region

SPECIAL REPORT: Solar Power in the Big Bend Region

By Alicia Neaves
NewsWest 9

BIG BEND - The Big Bend region is a gold mine for sunlight. It gets more than 300 days of sun a year. That's the reason that school districts and city establishments have converted to solar power.

As officials tell NewsWest 9, "If the future is looking bright, literally, why not use sunlight to go green and save some money?"

Solar technology is evolving. For example, prototypes are in the works for solar roadways, which would replace existing roads and highways with "smart" solar panels. Major companies like Tesla are also making moves. They recently unveiled solar power storage systems which will allow customers to store electricity from their solar panels and use it for a cloudy day or when the power grid goes down.

Due to the evolution in technology, and the price in solar panels plummeting, more consumers are investing in solar energy. Even for those that aren't choosing to invest, at least more have a better understanding of what solar power is and how it can impact their lives.

In 2010/2011, the City of Alpine installed solar panels at the city pool.

"Not only to help offset the cost of running the power at the pool, but also as a visual reminder to the citizens in the community for the option of solar," said Alpine City Manager, Erik Zimmer.

Solar cells are electric devices that convert the energy of light into electricity.

The Alpine city pool lies in the same area as Kokernot Park and the high school, and they use a lot of power, hence the location for the panels.

The city also put another set of panels - 220 to be exact - at the wastewater treatment plant to offset the power consumption.

"With what we have to do with aeration, pumping, movement of wastewater and sludge, we consume quite a bit of electricity out there," said Zimmer.

Presidio ISD uses solar power too, with panels installed at the elementary school and at the high school. With these panels installed, the district saves 25% on their electric bill.

"[The district] had saved up some money and they decided the best way to use it was put it into the infrastructure of the school in order to save energy for the future," said Facility and Operations Manager for Presidio ISD, Ruben Armendariz.

The high school and elementary school use 100 kilowatts each of solar power. Armendariz says the students will help maintain the solar panels on campus.

"We also have some monitoring systems inside the high school, which they monitor and they try to look for trends and help us tweak the system," said Armendariz.

Presidio students also learn about renewable energy in class. Raul Rios, Jose Medrano and Taylor Galliete make up Presidio ISD's first team to participate in the solar car challenge. Their team name is PHASCar (Presidio High Aficionados of Solar Car).

"We've been working on this project since September of 2014 and will continue working until the competition in July where we will be racing at Texas Motor Speedway for whoever can get the most laps," said Senior at Presidio High School, Taylor Galliete.

As the trio prepares for the competition July 20th, they're already setting their sights on next year's challenge. They will drive a solar-powered car from Austin all the way to Minneapolis, Minnesota.

"We have the frame of the car assembled and we've got all the solar panels on it, and we're working on the frame for the battery. So we just need to get everything wired," said Jose Medrano, a Junior at William Soza Early College High School in Presidio.

"We also need the tires on there, too," added Raul Rios, a sophomore at William Soza Early College High School.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration shows the cost of solar panels has dropped dramatically within the past ten years. For that reason, more are choosing to invest in this renewable energy source.

"So what you'll see is more commercial and government-type buildings that have a good, direct view to the South, or roofs with a good, unobstructed view to the South start putting more solar out there," said Zimmer.

Although more affordable, numbers show that solar power hasn't made a significant dent in energy generation.

A study by the Institute for Energy Research found that solar energy only accounts for 0.3% of electricity generated in the U.S. That's not counting rooftop solar panels for residential or commercial use.

Keep in mind, in order to put in a big solar farm, you'll need connection to a system of high voltage power lines which can carry excess production. So although Big Bend is rich in sunlight, big projects might be placed on the back burner for now.

"My sense is that unless the transmission came down here, you're not gonna see big projects. You'll see smaller ones to offset something like here at City Hall, maybe some of the school buildings or county buildings," said Zimmer.

"We can really influence the world to follow our example and use solar panels to power their schools, their companies and stuff like that," said Medrano.