Residents Support Bill with More Regulations on Solar and Wind Facilities; Concerns Include Electrical Fires, Environmental Harm

By B.N. Frank

American opposition to solar (see 1, 2, 3, 4) and wind farms (see 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9)is not going away.  This has led to local and state lawmakers introducing legislation including in the Lone Star State.

From the Energy News Network:

Solar and wind companies are coming to rural Texas. These residents are trying to keep them out.

Texas locals are concerned about environmental harm from renewable energy facilities and support a bill that would impose more regulations. The industry says it’s being unfairly singled out.

by Emily Foxhall/Texas Tribune

This story was originally published by the Texas Tribune.

FRANKLIN COUNTY — Volunteer firefighter Jim Emery grew emotional as he spoke to the crowd at an anti-solar development town hall meeting in his northeast Texas community. Emery, who worked for decades at the nearby coal power plant before it closed in 2018, didn’t worry then about pollution from the plant.

But now, the fear of storage batteries catching on fire at a solar facility grip the 67-year-old.

“I’ve been in the fire department since we started in ’76, and this scares me more than anything I’ve ever been involved with,” Emery told roughly 50 people gathered in a local coffee shop called Penelope’s in Mount Vernon, the county seat. “We need to stop it. I don’t know how we can. But we don’t need solar power in Franklin County at all.”

People cheered and whistled. Someone shouted, “Amen!”

In this pastoral county of about 11,000 residents roughly 100 miles east of Dallas, people have become alarmed by the number of solar companies interested in their abundant open land — and more importantly, their access to crucial electricity transmission lines. At least one solar project is being developed in the county, and community organizers are bracing for more.

They have a list of reasons for fighting solar development: The projects can require cutting down trees, scraping away grasses and blocking wildlife with fences. The community argues the long-term impacts of acres of solar panels on people and the environment have not been well studied.

Residents say they’re frustrated that Texas has few regulations for renewable energy. They are banding together with people in other rural Texas communities to push the Legislature to pass Senate Bill 624, which would require the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department to review environmental impacts for wind and solar projects, require renewable power developers to hold public meetings and require facilities to be built at least 100 feet from property lines and 200 feet from homes.

Over the past decade, solar and wind development has boomed in Texas, spurred by federal incentives and previous renewable-friendly state policies that lawmakers are now undoing. Texas leads the country in wind production and is near the top for solar.

Opponents have argued that wind and solar projects are bad for the ecosystem — wind turbines can kill birds and bats, and solar farms require installing infrastructure on large areas of land.

Supporters point to the benefits: Local and state governments get tax dollars, companies hire a handful of people to run the facilities and the cheap power they produce doesn’t require burning fossil fuels, which drives climate change.

They say the legislation puts unfair burdens on the wind and solar industry — other kinds of development don’t automatically have to host a community meeting or undergo the same level of environmental review before breaking ground. They say it poses one of the biggest threats to their ability to operate in Texas, jeopardizing billions of dollars of investment. And it’s just one of a slew of bills legislators are considering that could potentially harm the industry.

“We are just another case of private landowners deciding what to do with their property,” said Monty Humble, managing director at High Road Clean Energy LLC, which develops solar projects. “And in that sense we’re no different than somebody deciding to develop a trailer park, or any other land use that the neighbors might not particularly like.”

They have rallied to fight the bill, primarily authored by state Sens. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, and Mayes Middleton, R-Galveston, which passed out of committee April 13.

“Why does the bill only apply to renewable energy projects that use minimal water, have no air emissions and provide vital revenues in long-term lease payments to ranchers and farmers to enhance the productive use of rural land?” John Davis, a former state representative and a board member for Conservative Texans for Energy Innovation, asked during a hearing before the Senate Business and Commerce Committee. “It doesn’t make sense, unless of course it’s to punish renewables.”

Residents in Franklin County still don’t want solar panels next to their land. David Truesdale, a 64-year-old retired federal law enforcement agent, moved from Dallas to a 57-acre property in the area during the COVID-19 pandemic and now runs a nonprofit with his wife and leads the local group of solar opponents.

Both husband and wife meditate. They’re pescatarians. Their daughter drives a Tesla.

Truesdale said the state was doing nothing to protect them from what he considers an unsafe type of development that’s destroying a beautiful, peaceful landscape of cattle farms and prairie.

“We don’t think it’s appropriate to destroy the earth in order to save the earth,” Truesdale said. “It makes no sense to us.”

A statewide fight

The fight against renewables is playing out in other Texas communities.

In neighboring Hopkins County, Michael Pickens, grandson of the late oil and gas magnate T. Boone Pickens, is part of an effort to incorporate the town of Dike so it can at least charge power line fees or road fees to the solar companies if it can’t stop the projects from coming.

A self-described “tree-hugger,” the 41-year-old Pickens wore a “save the vaquita” T-shirt — a reference to an endangered marine mammal — at the Franklin County town hall meeting. He described what they were experiencing as renewable energy company Engie started building a 250-megawatt solar farm on land with post oak trees and wetlands that attracted bald eagles.

Pickens claimed the project destroyed the wetlands and polluted the water so badly that it smelled like a rotting carcass. Residents have filed lawsuits to challenge the local tax breaks the company received and complained to state environmental regulators and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, claiming that sediment was flowing off the construction site.

“It’s just gorgeous,” Pickens said, showing an image of his mom’s land. “Why would you ever clear-cut and decimate that for solar? It’s about the money.”

In a statement, Engie said the 1,850-acre site was largely cow pasture where the majority of trees had already been cleared and there were no active bird nests. The company said it assessed where wetlands were located and put runoff and erosion control measures in place. Many people supported the site, and the company planned to continue to reach out to the community, the statement said.

“We take our environmental compliance seriously and have worked through various agency processes and with our contractors to design and construct the project,” the company said. “While we have taken many proactive measures and continue to monitor and work diligently on compliance, when there is an issue raised, we want to evaluate and address it promptly, regardless of the source of a complaint.”

On the Texas-Mexico border, a local group supported a bill during the 2021 legislative session aimed at blocking Chinese developers from building a wind farm near the pristine Devils River around Del Rio and connecting it to the electrical grid. But the victory was short-lived; a Spanish company is acquiring the rights to develop the site, according to the Devils River Conservancy.

And near El Campo, about an hour’s drive southwest of Houston, Cricia Ryan is fighting wind and solar development that she sees as a threat to the agricultural way of life that her family depends on to make a living. Ryan’s dad is a crop duster; her mom helps run the business.

Ryan, 33, has lived in the area since she was 10 years old and has watched as farmland has been cleared to make way for solar panels and wind turbines.

“I truly don’t think people realize what’s taking place until it’s too late,” Ryan said as she climbed into her vehicle to give a tour of the new development over dirt roads. “Especially if you live in the city, and you just don’t think about it. It’s kind of like ‘out of sight, out of mind.’”

Ryan, who drove to Austin to speak in support of SB 624, said she’s concerned about the hazards turbines pose for crop duster pilots. And she’s tired of seeing roads torn up by construction traffic (signs on some local roads now prohibit construction trucks).

Environmental advocates agree it’s preferable to avoid undeveloped land and put solar and wind projects on land that has already been cleared. Some companies have tried to address that concern voluntarily. For example, clean energy company Ørsted announced plans to buy nearly 1,000 acres of sensitive prairie land as part of a northeast Texas project in Lamar County and donate it to The Nature Conservancy, then build a solar project on another 3,900 acres.

“Every development has decisions that are being made, and we would love for them to think about developing more sustainably, but it takes a willingness on the part of the business,” said Suzanne Scott, state director for the Texas chapter of The Nature Conservancy.

“What can we do?”

Continue reading at Energy News Network (with images)

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