By LEW K. COHN, Inquirer Editor
Representatives of a 1,400-acre ‘solar farm’ being built off Harwood Road north of Gonzales met with county commissioners Monday, May 9 to discuss the progress of the project and the possibility of a future economic development incentive agreement.
Apex Clean Energy of Charlottesville, Va., is developing Starling Solar LLC, a 120-megawatt AC photovoltaic generation facility west of Farm-to-Market Route 794 and south of Interstate 10 in the county of Gonzales, which is expected to generate enough energy to power more than 28,000 homes per year.
The project would use access to existing transmission lines on private land to supply electricity to the state power grid of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT). It would also create part-time and full-time jobs during the construction and operation of the solar park, with a total investment expected to exceed $138 million.
“From a development perspective, the project is nearly complete and we’re very excited to be part of the Gonzales community,” said Courtney McReynolds, Head of Development for Apex.
McReynolds said “all environmental field work has been completed and we do not anticipate any further studies.” In the meantime, a demarcation of the wetlands has been completed and “the project has been designed to avoid impacts on watercourses, wetlands and water bodies”.
Field surveys of possible nests of raptors and other listed species were completed this spring and “the project does not anticipate impacts to any state or federally listed species,” McReynolds said. Additionally, a Phase 1 Environmental Site Assessment was completed this spring and “no RECs (recognized environmental concerns) have been identified in the project area”, nor are there any identified cultural features. in the project area.
“In addition to the environmental studies, all the engineering work on the ground has also been completed,” she added. “Aerial, geotechnical and road assessment surveys were conducted between winter 2021 and spring 2022. The ALTA (American Land Title Association) boundary survey was finalized in April 2022. There is no had no red flags or negative reports and the project area is extremely compatible for a solar project.
McReynolds said Starling Solar and Apex have joined the Gonzales Chamber of Commerce and Agriculture while sponsoring several local events, including Come and Take It Celebration, the Gonzales Youth Livestock Show and Gonzales High School Project Graduation, to date.
“We have also looked into the possibility of sponsoring the local youth football association and are looking forward to other opportunities to help the community,” said McReynolds.
Robert Peña, president of Edinburgh-based Texas Energy Consultants, spoke with commissioners about the desire to have Gonzales County work with Apex and Starling Solar on a Chapter 381 economic development agreement similar to the one the county approved for BYK USA Inc. for a $50 million expansion. of its Gonzales plant five years ago.
“We’re making this request because we think it could be a real partnership,” Peña said. “This isn’t the first time the county or the state of Texas has worked with them in the past.”
Peña’s company, Texas Energy, specializes in “Texas energy project development and tax planning” helping companies secure local, state and federal tax opportunities as well as assisting in the acquisition, site planning and preparation.
“We will negotiate the incentive with liability first entirely and totally on the business,” Peña said. “Before anything can happen, the company will need to establish a foothold in Gonzales County, build and complete the project, and then become a viable Gonzales County tax entity.”
The county sets the parameters for any agreement and may set up an annual compliance review with the deal, on which any economic incentive would depend, Peña said.
“Annual applicability of the incentive would be something they would have to apply for every year,” he added. “The company must show compliance by being a full tax entity for the county and being current on their personal property taxes, then submitting their annual incentive application to the county for review.
“It allows the county to assess the project and make sure it remains compliant and make sure it does everything it said it would do.”
Peña said the county has the flexibility to set the length of the construction and operation period of the agreement to whatever length the county deems appropriate.
“You can also require the company to maintain a viable presence,” Peña said. “Let’s say, for example, it becomes an eight-year deal and then you require the company to maintain an additional five years in business to qualify. There are clawback clauses included in the agreement if the company fails to comply.
Peña said the state of Texas has a restoration tax that would require the company to pay “three years of restoration tax” on the site’s industrial value to the county, which will generate additional tax revenue, in addition to increasing property value creating more tax revenue.
The commissioners took no action at the May 9 meeting, but may discuss the possibility of a Chapter 381 agreement with Apex and Starling Solar at a later date.