Solar farm

A “Say ‘NO’ to Solar Farms” sign is seen Thursday across from OnCor Temple Pecan Creek Switching Station on FM 438.

North Bell County will soon make a large leap into renewable energy as a Virginia-based company plans on building a large solar farm near Troy. But some neighbors are not happy about it.

Virginia energy company Apex Clean Energy is planning an expansion into the north side of the county in a big way — about 3,000 acres of solar panels. The concept of being neighbors to this new energy source has adjacent landowners concerned about the side effects of having this business in their backyards or across the street.

The proposed section of land for this farm is in between Troy and Oenaville, moving from northwest to southeast in a long line of properties.

Bell County Precinct 3 Commissioner Bill Schumann, who represents the area, said the property is in county land and landowners out there are free to do what they want on their property as long as it doesn’t affect their neighbor’s lands.

Some neighbors bordering the proposed solar farm fear the land will become the “wild, wild west of solar panels.”

“We are certainly looking at all aspects of (this project) and these things have a history all over the country, so it is pretty easy to see what the possible drawbacks having this kind of instillation are,” Schumann said. “A basic right of every Texas property owner is to pursue any endeavor he wants to on his personal property within existing laws. Obviously, you can’t do something that pollutes the water, and obviously you can’t do something that creates a runoff problem where you are diverting water onto your neighbor’s property at his detriment.”

Apex spokeswoman Natasha Montague said the solar farm — designated the Big Elm Solar — will result in $225 million in investment into Bell County. It will pay out $54 million to landowners and $36 million in tax payments to the county and the Troy Independent School District over its lifetime, she said.

Montague said that only 1,400 of the 3,000 purchased acres will be covered by the solar array, outputting about 200 megawatts of power.

Resident Pete Rondeau, who lives northwest of the proposed solar farm and across the street, said he is opposed to the farm because of the possibility of environmental damage. Rondeau said he has been reading up on solar panels and farms since he heard about the company buying the land, and is worried about possible toxic chemicals used in the panels leaking out into the ground and surrounding land.

Rondeau said he knows about the weather Central Texas experiences, and worries about what broken panels would do to the surrounding land.

“We have our fair share of tornadoes that come through, and hail storms,” Rondeau said. “And if those panels get broken that stuff leaches out and goes right into the ground water and into the soil. When you are talking about 3,000 acres, almost five square miles, of that stuff, what do you do with all of that?”

Rondeau also worries about if toxic materials did leak out, who would be forced to pay for the cleanup efforts.

Robert Fleming, who lives down the road from Rondeau and across the street from the farm, said his concerns span more than possible toxic chemicals.

Fleming, a member of the Texas Farm Bureau, said he was approached by Apex to sell his land to be a part of the farm and he declined because he felt it wasn’t the best for the environment. He said the company’s project could affect the local Blackland prairie and make the land more susceptible to erosion by removing local vegetation.

“When I really got to researching the idea, I found out that, as stewards of the land, it isn’t going to be a great idea for the community and the next generation. I am not so sure that (solar farms) are good for the environment and good for the wildlife. And I question how much soil loss we will have without the ground being covered by grass, and the runoff,” Fleming said.

While he currently is against the project, Fleming said that if the company addresses his environmental concerns and doesn’t ruin the local ecosystem, he would be willing to change his mind.

A large reason Rondeau and Fleming are concerned about the possible environmental effects is due to farming and raising livestock on their properties. Rondeau said he has cows and horses on his land while Fleming has goats and a variety of crops on his land.

Montague said the company’s solar panels contain no toxic materials and are composed of silica, tempered glass and wire. She said that no matter the type of solar panel, any possible harmful material would not be reactive in the panel and would be embedded during the manufacturing process.

Montague said the ground of the solar farm would be planted with native grasses and will only be plowed bi-annually to reduce the amount of erosion.

Both men, and their neighbors, are fearful the property values of their lands will go down.

“Who wants to live across the street from an industrial site?” Fleming asked.

The company estimates that once construction starts, which is expected in spring 2021, it will employ between 200 and 300 people, becoming operational in spring 2022. Once the facility is operational it will have two full-time positions.