Texas sunshine is abundant and has become a commodity for more than the tourist business that our beaches attract. Modern technology has given rise to solar power becoming part of the electric grid. Wharton County, alongside the Wharton Independent School District, would benefit from the advances taking place. 

One recent boon comes in the form of a solar energy plant on a 3,000-acre tract that’s part of the 32,000 acres of Pierce Ranch on the west side of the Colorado River. This area has been chosen by AP Solar Holdings because Wharton County is close to the greater Houston area. It looks like a win/win for not only WC and WISD, but also for the solar company that is planning the project. 

“If financing comes through, the start of construction could be as early as the first quarter of 2021,” said Lisa Murphy, development director for AP Solar Holdings. She anticipates the project will last 12 to 18 months and that it will be completely ready by the summer 2022.

“A farmer who was working it (the farmland) has retired,” said Murphy. “We are not putting active farmland out of commission.”  

The project will produce 350 megawatts of AC, alternating current electricity. It will provide enough electricity for about 65,000 homes. This is comparable to a small coal plant or a natural gas fired plant, according to the company. Once the energy is produced, it will become part of the ERCOT market, adding to the electric grid. 

“It will take a lot of solar panels to produce that much power,” said Murphy. “Total solar installed in Texas is over 5,577 megawatts, which is up 1,382 mw in 2019.

“It’s taken a while to catch on due to the expense that was involved. It’s more feasible now than in the early 1980s because technology has been improved. Current electricity is provided by natural gas, coal plants, and diesel plants … peaker plants that evaluate demand for the grid.”

Once it is operational, there will be a lot of financial input to the school district and the county. 

All the acreage that will be utilized is within WISD’s jurisdiction, so they will be included in the tax rolls. But what the developers are hoping for is a 312-tax abatement, an incentive that gives them a decrease in value for the first 10 years.

“We need a tax abatement from the county to get through those first few years,” said Murphy. “If we are taxed at full assessment those first 10 years, the financial rate of return is very low for these projects.

“It is a state statute that allows us to depreciate the investment and assets over a 10-year period down to a 20% floor, then abate some of the taxes. We have asked for a 55% abatement – 85% the first couple of years, then going down to 10%, so the investment rate of return looks a little better in those months.”

If built, the project would bring $13 million to Wharton County and $16 million to the Wharton Independent School District during the course of 10 years. 

Murphy said the project will also provide jobs for more than 300 construction workers, which will benefit the local economy through rental property, hotel/motel space, restaurants, etc. Once its complete, there will be three full time people to operate it. 

“We will hire a contractor who builds it and we encourage local for everything they can (use local workers for),” said Murphy. “There is potential for sales tax and all the indirect benefits that come from having that many construction workers in that area.”

Murphy is a developer and she identifies land for potential projects.  

“We look for large family ranches, and Pierce Ranch – the Armours that run it – really try to diversify the use of it (the land),” said Murphy. “They’re trying to keep it in the family as long as possible.”

The Armours have had the land since the late 1800s. One of the things they wanted to do by leasing the land for the Red-Tailed Hawk Solar Project makes it a 30-35-year asset, so at the end of that time, if they don’t want to lease it for solar power any more, they can return it to its original use. 

“This is a good way for them to receive some revenue for some of their property and preserve it for future agricultural use or whatever is needed at the time,” said Murphy. 

Some of the issues that might arise stem from the unpredictability of Mother Nature, especially hurricanes and hail. The panels were created to handle stress from the winds associated with hurricanes, but big hail is another story. They can endure small size hail, but when it gets to be quarter size, it can cause damage.  

The company has insurance available for that if needed. 

If you would like more information, go to their website: http://www.redtailedhawksolar.com/

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