Solar panels are popping up all over Texas and dividing rural communities

By Julie Tomascik

Thousands of acres in Texas will take advantage of the sun’s rays, but not for livestock production or cultivation. Solar energy development companies are moving to rural communities and are dividing those who live there.

Some landlords have agreed to long-term leases with solar companies, while neighbors and other communities across the state oppose the industrial facilities and try to stop them.

Robert Fleming, who runs farms and ranches in central Texas, helped organize and lead a grassroots effort to temporarily block projects to remove land from the area of ​​agricultural production.

“I’m not against solar power, but when it comes to getting top-quality farmland and farms out of production, that’s why I’m worried,” he said. “These companies are very organized. They are very professional and have done so throughout the United States. They are very hidden. They enter our communities and separate the family. They separate friends. They separate the neighbors with a dollar bill, and that’s what really bothers me the most. They know that no one can compete with this kind of money, because we are in a depressed agricultural economy.

The decision of the solar company project came to Troy ISD and whether the school district would approve a tax cut under Chapter 313, which is an economic development program within the state tax code that allows the value of taxable property for the creation of promised employment. It is a tool that school districts have used for a long time.

Fleming, several landowners and concerned citizens protested against the reduction and met with State Representative Hugh Shine, Troy ISD school board officials, county commissioners and community leaders.

“We gave them packages of things and tried to inform them as best we could through the packages and also through emails and phone calls,” Fleming said. “It simply came to our notice then. The closer the vote got, the more aggressive we got, but in a professional way ”.

His efforts were successful. Troy ISD rejected the proposed solar project reduction with a 6-1 vote.

The solar company issued a statement to a media outlet saying, “This Troy ISD decision could eliminate opportunities for local private owners and the county in general, including more than $ 36 million in tax payments in Bell County. and Troy ISD “.

A bill that would expand the Chapter 313 tax reduction program failed in the Texas legislature earlier this year. Fleming believes the reason many solar companies are trying to drive projects right now is because the tax reduction program expires on December 31, 2022.

The current Texas Farm Bureau policy supports legislation and incentives to develop renewable energy based on farms, such as solar, wind, and biogas projects. However, members recognize the need to study the cumulative impacts on agricultural land values ​​and electricity markets that result from incentive programs such as local tax cuts.

The position reflects the division and concern among some members.

However, other owners receive the solar projects. Solar companies offer lucrative leases, between $ 450 and $ 1,200 per acre a year in incremental increments. Leases range from 20 to 40 years, with the option of additional long-term renewals.

Constant income can help soften the financial roller coaster of farming and raising livestock, and the owner has no cost to “raise” the solar panels.

“Money is intoxicating,” Fleming said.

Acres of Texas farmland are shifting from traditional crops to solar farming. One of the limits, however, is the distance to the mains. It is expensive to build a connection to transmission lines.

But the solar industry continues to grow across the country as technology and materials become cheaper and federal tax credits further reduce the cost of developing solar projects.

However, when thousands of acres of production are removed, critics say it will affect businesses in the area and Lone Star State’s total agricultural production.

“How many people are linked to agriculture, to this land and depend on it? It’s not just the producer. They are the fertilizer company, the chemical vendors, the feed companies, the insurance companies, the tractor tool companies, the truck transportation, and so on. There are a lot of people tied to this land, ”Fleming said.

Landscape change can also alter rural communities.

Critics say the development of these projects focuses on rural infrastructure. Agricultural and commercial roads built for occasional heavy loads are subject to an attack by heavy machinery and loaded gravel trucks. The fields and pastures, once lush with cattle and with new growth, are covered with rock and protected by chain fences crowned with razor wire.

It is an unusual aspect after decades of agricultural production.

But scenarios like the one in Troy are being developed across the state, as solar power is the fastest growing source of electricity in Texas.

Proponents and regulators of clean energy, along with landowners, support the renewable energy source, but many farmers and ranchers are wary of the massive new facilities being set up in their communities. .

“Every day the urbanization eats us. Now, we have to deal with solar leases, ”said Fleming.

What does the future hold for Fleming and his family?

He will continue to cultivate crops and raise livestock alongside his wife, son, daughter and son-in-law while he can, fighting to save a way of life.

And it remains to be seen how many solar panels will erupt across the state and crunch from time to time as they pivot to follow the sun across the sky.