Solar farm debate draws large crowd in Brownwood

Steve Nash
Brownwood Bulletin
Brookesmith school superintendent Steve Mickelson speaks about the solar farm project at the Adams Street Community Center Wednesday night in Brownwood.
Brown County commissioners Gary Worley (foreground) and Larry Traweek listen to citizens' comments about the solar farm project Wednesday night at the Adams Street Community Center in Brownwood.
Rex Tacket speaks about the solar farm project  as Intersect Power representative Christian Fiene listens Wednesday night at the Adams Street Community Center in Brownwood.

An informational meeting Wednesday night about the proposed solar farm project near Brookesmith drew capacity crowd Wednesday night at the Adams Street Community Center.

Brown County Commissioners Court members — who published an agenda for the meeting as an informational workshop —listened to comments from about 20 speakers who gave their views on whether commissioners should grant a tax abatement next month to Intersection Power to build an operate the IP Radian Solar Farm project.

Commissioners will have a public hearing on May 10 and consider taking action that day on granting an abatement.

California-based Intersect Power is seeking a tax abatement for a solar farm the company wants to build on 2,500 acres located within the Brookesmith school district.

Proponents believe the solar farm will benefit the county through an increase in tax revenue. Opponents list objections including their belief that alternative energy projects hurt land values.

Intersect Power representatives speak

Intersect Power representatives Christian Fiene and Dale Cummings led off the meeting with statements including: 

• Intersect began developing Texas projects in 2010. The first Texas project came online in Pecos County in 2016.

• The proposed Brown County project is in southwestern corner of the county and borders Coleman County.

• The project is utilizing private land from 12 landowners and is surrounded by rural country roads.

• Solar projects are different from wind projects. They are no higher than 10 feet tall and don’t have bright blinking red lights that can be seen at night from a distance. The panels on solar farms are very dark blue. From a distance, if they are seen at all, they will look like water.

• Intersect is seeking a tax abatement to be competitive with other projects in Texas as it competes to sell wholesale power. All of those Texas projects have tax abatement agreements.

• The project will generate tax revenue for the county every year and will not cause taxes to got up.

• Intersect initially sought a 10-year agreement for the abatement of 85 percent of its taxes. Intersect is now seeking a seven-year agreement with a 55 percent abatement.

• For the first 11 years of the project, it would pay $3.4 million in taxes to the county and 5.5 million to the Brookesmith school district.

• Over a 35-year useful life, the project would pay a total of $25 million in taxes — $16 million to the Brookesmith school district and $9 million to the county.

• Under the current ag exemption, the 2,500 acres would generate $44,000 in taxes over the same 11-year period and $140,000 over a 35-year period.

• The project will create 300 to 400 temporary construction jobs over 12 to 18 months. Two permanent jobs will be created.

• Intersect began developing project under the Trump administration and is not part of the Green New Deal.

• During the power outages in Brown County during the February winter storm, solar and wind were not the primary contributors to the outages. The Radian project would have produced energy had it been online.

• After the project is built, the land will return in great part to its natural state.

Brown County residents who spoke in favor of the project included:

Steve Mickelson, Brookesmith ISD superintendent

“From the school district’s vantage, this is a gift. It’s just straight up a gift. Funding for schools is very difficult right now. It’s difficult for small schools … no one’s footing the bill except for the (Intersect). I’m having a hard time understanding how this is not absolutely outstanding news. I cannot imagine any district thinking this is just not absolutely outstanding. This is an absolute amazing thing for Brookesmith ISD. We have come through some really tough times but this would help us tremendously.”

Kennth Adams, property owner

“We as landowners never thought that we would come across a project that would take our assets, provide for the Brookesmith school, provide for us and provide for Brown County citizens. We looked at that as a win-win-situation. We We just thought it looked like to us as a blessing.”

Opponents to the project “turned (the project) into basically a monster, how terrible everything was that had anything to do with it.” 

Adams said he has paperwork from a certified appraiser in neighboring county showing alternative energy projects don’t hurt land values.

Ray Slatyon, Brookesmith resident

Slayton, a 1998 Brookesmith graduate, said the project will help ensure his grandchildren will also be Brookesmith graduates. Slaton said the landowners group Texas Landowners Opposed to Wind (TLOW) has hired an outside company to collect signatures for a petition opposing the project.

John Conaway, property owner

Conaway read a letter from Lamar County Judge Brandon Bell. Solar projects in Lamar County have been successful, Conaway said, citing Bell’s letter. “The solar companies are doing what they promised to do,” Conaway said, quoting the letter.

 Terry McIver, property owner

“Who has the authority and the right to take away over $100,000 a year annuity that I’ll get selling solar off of my place?” McIver said people who oppose the project are probably wealthy and “don’t want the rest of us to share the wealth.  

Opponents included:

 Jeff Tucker, property owner

“We’re citizens too. TLOW is just a name. What we are is a group of concerned citizens that will address things such as the tax abatement issue or the pros and cons of renewable. Me personally, I’m not against solar. But I’m not for solar where it doesn’t make common sense and fiscal sense.

“This is a Brown County issue. I applaud the efforts being made by any industry that comes into this county. But it has to make sense both in a fiscal way and a common sense approach. If it has an adverse effect on something as precious a commodity as land.”

Tucker said the company collecting signatures for a petition is a reputable company from Buda and was brought in for petitions in previous Brown County issues. The current petition consists of more than 1,800 signatures, Tucker said.

Rex Tackett, business owner

“The benefits from the solar are small and they are short lived compared to the long term effects of these solar farms. Does anyone believe that your land is as valuable next door to a wind farm or a solar farm? If you’re on the fence line are you going to go out and buy a piece of property or build a house next to a solar farm? I don’t believe it and I don’t believe that anybody really really believes that. If the court votes no, you’ll send a message to these companies that Brown County isn’t for sale. We don’t need them and I don’t think we want them.” 

Josh Stegemoller, real estate broker

“Knowing how good we have it with higher property values, increased demand for our land, there is no reason to vote yes for a solar or wind tax abatement. The first questions asked of me while marketing a ranch for sale is, can you see turbines from this ranch? Are there overhead power lines on or near the property? Are there any easements going through the ranch? The point is that buyers avoid properties that have these issues associated with them. The solar farm in my opinion will cause the same concern due to the fact buyers fear the future expansion of these solar farms encroaching on these properties. Uncertainty about these eyesores spook buyers right out of the gate and they avoid counties and ranches that are associated with these solar and wind farm projects.”

Kendra Clardy, natural resource management

“Once (solar farm) construction happens, it is permanent change. Panels will cover the entire area. The height of the grasses will be heavily monitored. They won’t want vegetation to grow to a certain height because could attract unwanted wildlife.”

Clardy said another question is what happens to solar panels that go bad. “Will these counties be left on the site, or will they end up in the Brown County Landfill, or will another section of land be used to store these?”

“The land —it’s essentially like turning it into a parking lot. Nothing is meant to live or grow there. It is just there for the panels. There will be no other use What can solar actually bring to our county? “Money to certain people and to school, a few jobs … what will solar take from he county? It will take woody vegetation, destruction to the existing watersheds, wildlife habitat, good agriculture land, livestock grazing and hunting.

Steve Beal, property owner

“It’s a little more complicated and it’s a little more significant than just deciding on what are you going to do about a tax abatement on 2,600 acres in southern Brown County?” 

Skylar Mabee, Brookesmith resident

Mabee believes his land will lose value because of this project. He said he’s lived in Brown County with his family because  “it’s my kind of Texas . Lnd is one thing you cannot make more of, no matter what it pays a month.”