Local government

A proposed solar farm that will bring more than $186 million in improvements is set to move forward after securing a tax abatement from the Bell County government.

The Commissioners Court, in a unanimous decision Monday, approved a 10-year agreement for the Big Elm Solar project — a 3,000-acre solar farm in North Bell County being developed by Virginia-based Apex Clean Energy and High Road Clean Energy of Austin.

“Anyone that has a light bulb will benefit from this program,” said Bill Allen, a county resident who is leasing his land for the solar farm.

The contract, though, is not like a traditional tax abatement, which is typically based around the appraised value of the property on which a project will be built.

It is a payments-in-lieu-of-taxes contract, or a PILOT agreement. That allows the Commissioners Court to include stipulations — such as addressing some residents’ concerns about the proposed solar farm — in the agreement.

Under the contract, Big Elm Solar must produce at least 180 megawatts of electricity annually; be operational by March 1, 2022; the owners must conduct an environmental study that exceed state and federal requirements; use materials that minimize harm to the environment; and have a plan to return the land to its previous state once the project is decommissioned.

“I think a 10-year PILOT agreement that produces $2 million in additional revenue for the county taxpayers, with the provisions to address the issues and concerns that have been raised, is in my view a benefit for the county as a whole,” Bell County Judge David Blackburn said. “It is a major investment that will benefit the property and will contribute to the economic development of Bell County.”

The Troy Independent School District also will benefit from the solar farm. Monty Humble, the managing director of High Road Clean Energy, previously told the Commissioners Court the school district could receive about $23 million over 10 years.

“I think it will be a benefit for the Bell County area. I think it will be a super benefit for the Troy school district,” Temple resident Charles Grisham said. “It will protect the land. When the solar deal is over, it might be the only farmland left.”

The developers expect to create 300 jobs during construction and have two to three full-time jobs once the solar farm is completed. It is expected to produce up to 200 megawatts of electricity each year.

Last month, commissioners unanimously agreed to designate a new reinvestment zone for the Big Elm Solar project.

Big Elm Solar has attracted its share of criticism from nearby landowners who have derided it as a hazardous and unsightly project. Eight residents on Monday voiced their opinion on the tax abatement to the commissioners, including two who opposed it.

“There is a whole lot more to it than what we realize. It’s really smelly. It’s a lot of ands, ifs and buts,” county resident Robert Fleming said, adding that renewable energy projects receive plenty of subsidies from state and federal governments.

Many of the concerns residents brought up as the commissioners considered the project in recent months were valid for Blackburn.

“Concerns about decommissioning, concerns about environmental impact, concerns about drainage — all valid concerns, I believe, and concerns that would go unaddressed locally (without an agreement),” the county judge said. “If we did not enter into an agreement with the company, they could still move forward and not address those issues at all in any type of local agreement. No agreement will be perfect, but I do believe an agreement is better than no agreement.”

Commissioner Bill Schumann represents Precinct 3, where the solar farm will be built. He pointed out the Electric Reliability Council of Texas — the entity that manages the flow of electric power to more than 26 million Texans — is planning to rely on renewable energy as coal- and nuclear-based electric plants are phased out.

“So where’s all this energy going to come from if we don’t have coal plants and don’t have nuclear and we’re depending on natural gas to be cheap enough and in supply enough to run Panda?” Schumann said, referring to the natural gas power plant in Temple. “Again, I would propose that solar is probably one of the better renewable choices to have for dependable energy when you need it, which is between 3 and 5 in the afternoon.”