With Texas expected to surpass California this May as the top U.S. state for utility-scale solar, OCI Solar Power is a driving force in getting the Lone Star State across the finish line.
The San Antonio-based energy company celebrated its 10th anniversary last summer, and as of February has initiated more than 3 gigawatts of utility-scale solar projects across the nation.
Last week, OCI Solar Power announced a new agreement with Tokyo-based Mitsui Inc. marking its intent to collaborate on new solar projects in Texas.
As it continues to grow, the solar subsidiary owned by the South Korean chemical conglomerate OCI Company Ltd. is also harnessing more than the sun’s power — it is investing in San Antonio’s workforce via a $500,000, 10-year partnership with the Alamo Colleges and Project Quest to train students for jobs in the solar industry.
“I think it really shows the commitment of staying here in San Antonio for decades,” said Timothy Heinle, OCI’s vice president of business development. “We are the utility-scale solar developer of San Antonio.”
Heinle spoke from Alamo 1, the company’s first solar farm. Located on the South Side of San Antonio just east of Mitchell Lake, the 445-acre property boasts 185,000 solar panels. The panels, shiny and black, have rectangular bodies much larger than residential rooftop solar panels. Set on trackers, they move from east to west throughout the day to optimize how much of the sun’s rays they can absorb.
Separated into rows and blocks, they look like an odd, chrome vineyard. Rather than harvesting grapes for wine, however, the panels harvest a maximum of 40 megawatts of the sun’s energy at any given time.
One megawatt can power roughly 200 homes on a hot Texas day.
As they wound their way through the rows, the panels towered over Heinle and Sabah Bayatli, vice president of project development and engineering, procurement and construction.
The two OCI Solar Power executives stopped to point out where the company is testing bifacial panels and the now-retired 1-megawatt battery project is located.
“We did a lot of firsts in Texas by way of solar,” Heinle said. “First utility-scale solar projects, first battery energy storage project, all sorts of things.”
Beyond CPS Energy deal
OCI Solar Power, which is now one of the largest solar energy developers in Texas, moved its headquarters from Atlanta to San Antonio in 2012 as part of a series of power purchase agreements with CPS Energy and an economic development agreement with the City of San Antonio.
As part of those power purchase agreements, OCI Solar Power agreed to develop, finance, and construct up to 400 megawatts of solar projects; CPS Energy would buy all the output power.
As a part of this deal, OCI Ltd. launched Mission Solar in 2015 to manufacture the panels for those solar farms. The plan was that once that contract was complete, the company would be able to stand on its own — and that’s exactly what happened. Mission Solar is expected to triple its capacity by the end of this year.
While the original economic development agreement came to an end in 2022, OCI Solar Power is still collaborating with CPS Energy on multiple projects, Heinle said. While the original plan called for seven solar farms that would generate 400 megawatts, OCI ended up building nine projects totaling 500 megawatts. CPS Energy purchases all of that power.
“That all was sort of version 1.0 for us,” Heinle said. “Version 2.0 is doubling down on solar in Texas, as well as leveraging the battery energy storage project we did with CPS to make use of battery energy storage products.”
Version 2.0 also includes strengthening the local employment pipeline, said Leslie Garza-Wright, senior manager of marketing and communications. OCI Solar Power’s half-million dollar investment will support St. Philip’s College’s Power Generation and Alternative Energy program, which gives students the skills necessary to work in the electrical power generation industry. The program offers four degree and certificate options.
Texas is an energy state
Texas is known as a powerhouse in oil and gas. Last month, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick announced that building more natural gas plants across Texas was one of his legislative priorities, in order to improve the reliability of the state’s power grid.
Heinle said Texas should instead be thought of as an energy state, given that it has also long been a leader in wind and solar — thanks in part to OCI Solar Power, he couldn’t help adding.
Growth in renewables “is being driven by corporate energy purchasers that have environmental, social, and governance [or ESG] goals,” Heinle said. “They see that the best way to achieve those ESG goals is to purchase renewable energy in Texas.”
Bayatli said that both state and federal policy has helped the business as well.
“In general, I would say Texas is friendly in terms of development and I think in general the community is supportive,” he said.
The Inflation Reduction Act will be a game changer, Heinle said. Having federal dollars available for renewable and environmental projects will help incentivize more businesses and utilities adopt solar, and spur more private investment.
The expanded use of battery storage will also help renewables expand in Texas by allowing wind farms, which generate most of their power at night, to store power that can be discharged during peak demand Heinle said — and batteries don’t have emissions.
OCI Solar Power’s first lithium-ion battery storage project launched in 2016. The 1-megawatt project was deemed a success and decommissioned in December. The company is now working to build a 100-megawatt battery energy storage system.
The company is also expanding its use of bifacial solar panels, which have cells on both sides, making them potentially more efficient. OCI has experimented with this design over the past year to much success, Bayatli said.
“We are a local developer in San Antonio expanding [our] resources to be able to develop in other states to around the nation,” he said. “While keeping our headquarters in San Antonio, we’re expanding to outside of Texas as well.”
CPS Energy and OCI Solar Power are financial supporters of the San Antonio Report. For a full list of business members, click here.