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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 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 5,000 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?”
At the Franklin County town hall meeting, organizers served tamales, and B. F. Hicks, the 71-year-old town lawyer and a seventh-generation area resident, greeted everyone.
Hicks moved home to Franklin County from Dallas soon after law school. He’s a naturalist who gets excited about spotting an eastern kingbird or a scissor-tailed flycatcher on a barbed wire fence. He lives in a restored church, maintains a 922-acre swath of flower-covered prairie that he owns and displays a slew of environmental and historic preservation awards in his office.
“We’re lobbying really hard in Austin right now,” Hicks told a county commissioner at the meeting.
Anguished residents argued renewable energy was getting away with too much. Ron Barker recalled squirrel hunting in sun-streaked woods that he fears will be chopped down by solar companies. Kathy Boren, who retired from the local Lowe’s distribution center, said a battery facility that will store solar energy is being built near her home, and she felt nobody was concerned about her property rights.
“What can we do?” asked someone in the crowd.
They’ve tried fighting the solar projects on multiple fronts. More than 1,100 locals signed a petition against any solar projects in the county. County commissioners voted to impose a 180-day moratorium on commercial solar development — even though the county attorney warned them that they didn’t have the authority to limit what a company could do on leased land.
The commissioners later rescinded the moratorium, and the county attorney asked the state attorney general’s office to review whether the county had the power to adopt and enforce it.
Some residents took the fight to the local school board last year as it weighed whether to give tax breaks to two solar developers, including Enel Green Power, which is developing a 210-megawatt solar installation and the 70-megawatt battery storage site that worried Boren. The company named the project “Stockyard.”
At an Oct. 6 school board meeting, the residents asked the board to turn the deals down while Zach Precopia, a development manager for Enel, tried to assuage their concerns. Precopia said the company typically reached out to the local fire department to prepare them for the unlikely possibility of electrical fires and used low-risk and tough-to-break panels; residents had voiced concerns about trace metals from the panels contaminating soil and water.
The company in other cases had developed agreements with neighbors, sometimes offering small monetary payments in recognition that they have to live next to an industrial site.
Precopia, who grew up about two hours away in Sherman, said when he negotiates leases with landowners, he assures them their property will be protected and promises that the company will remove its equipment and return the land in healthy condition when it eventually shuts down a solar project — the company said it expects to operate on the land for about 40 years.
The company has leased around 1,900 acres for the project from the family of Cody West, 48, who said in an interview that the money his family will earn from leasing two properties to Enel has allowed him to quit his work as a project manager building wind turbines and move home to work on the family’s ranch.
“This affords us another opportunity to have the money to keep ranching, go buy another place, expand our herd,” West said. “Ultimately, it was a pretty easy decision to go ahead and take the offer. … Everybody can continue doing what they like to do, what they love to do.”
On Nov. 14, the school board rejected the tax breaks, saying the financial benefits of adding a new company to the strapped school tax rolls didn’t “offset the intangible costs to the relationship between the district and the community.”
Enel is moving ahead with the project.
Disclosure: Conservative Texans for Energy Innovation, the Devils River Conservancy, the Texas Parks And Wildlife Department and The Nature Conservancy have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.
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This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune