RIO GRANDE CITY, RGV – Starr County is about to get a major solar energy project, county leaders say.

The name of the company involved in developing the 3,000-acre solar farm has yet to be named. However, negotiations are at an advanced stage. 

“We are happy to report that within the next few weeks, we may be able to begin the final negotiations in earnest for our first solar farm,” said Rose Benavidez, president of Starr County Industrial Foundation, in an exclusive interview with the Rio Grande Guardian and RGV Public Radio 88 FM.

Rose Benavidez, president of Starr County Industrial Foundation.

Starr County has become known as a Mecca for wind farms in recent years. Their arrival has helped the county turn around a once bleak financial crunch. Now, however, another renewable energy source is set to be announced.

“We still continue to see a big increase in the amount of dollars coming in. Wind energy is playing a big part in expanding revenues. We have another one coming in line this year. We expect this will have a significant increase in our tax dollars, so we can provide more services,” Benavidez said.

“We are really excited to be talking about a solar project. We are scheduled to go before the commissioner’s court in about a week to get authorization to finalize negotiations with them. It will be about a 3,000-acre solar farm. The first in the region that will come to Starr County.”

Benavidez said she will be able to share more information on the size of the investment and the location of the project once all the negotiations are complete.

“This is going to be a brand new sector. There is another one in the Webb County- Hebbronville, area but this will be the first one in the Valley. We believe we will see construction before the end of the year. We are excited.”

Benavidez predicted the new solar farm will be the first of many.

“We are looking at multiple solar projects that are coming to the area. We are also at the last stages of being able to finalize a very, very large commercial project, with franchises coming to the area. This is going to be a great year for Starr County.”

Benavidez acknowledged that economic activity has been improving for many years in her county.

“Every year it gets better. It has not been easy. Lots of hard work, lots of cooperation, a lot of partnerships to make these partnerships happen. We are just fortunate to be part of it. We are making a continued effort to grow this community. We are looking at every avenue possible. Renewable energy just seems to work out well for our region.”

Benavidez added: “We are looking at expanding healthcare and we are looking to bring more educational opportunities via South Texas College. So, we are excited.”

Judge Vera’s viewpoint

Starr County Judge Eloy Vera also spoke about the new solar energy project.

“Currently, the company coming in has 1,500 acres of solar energy planned but they are working on a contract for 1,500 more. This is enormous. My understanding is this will be the largest solar farm in the state of Texas. It seems very possible. We have our fingers crossed. We are very optimistic it is going to happen,” Vera said. 

Vera said he had to chuckle when outsider advisers did not think renewable energy would be a top sector going forward for his county.

Starr County Judge Eloy Vera

“Rose (Benavidez) was able to get some funding to do a strategic plan for our county, to help with economic development. We have been meeting with the different entities. They asked what do you think is the biggest economic development we have in the county. The first two things that came up were international trade and tourism. I agree with this. I was there to listen. But, in my opinion, the next 20 years, alternative energy will be the No. 1 economic driver in our county.”

Vera said wind energy has made a big difference the county’s tax base.

“A few years ago, revenues were down. Last year they went up slightly, that was when the first wind farms started paying taxes. This year we have more wind farms coming in. So, this year, the estimated revenues are about $150 million more than they were last year. That is enormous for us. Last year they were about $50 million.”

Next year, things should be even better, Vera said, because more wind farms will be up and running, along with the big solar project. 

“When the wind industry started, their turbines would generate about 1.2 megawatts. As technology improved, the turbines started to become more efficient and bigger. Right now, the ones they are installing at the county line between Starr and Zapata generate over four megawatts. But, they are enormous. My understanding is the tallest wind turbine in Texas is in Starr County, over 500 feet. It has come a long way. Alternative energy in our county has taken great steps.”

Dark Money

Jeffrey Clark, director of the Advanced Power Alliance. (Photo: Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon/KUT).

Judge Vera recently had a sponsored content guest column published in the Texas Tribune. The column was sponsored by the Advanced Power Alliance. This group has been formed to counter attacks on renewable energy in Texas.

“In response to unprecedented dark money attacks on renewable energy in Texas, the Advanced Power Alliance today launched a multimedia advertising campaign calling on Texans to engage with their state legislators and to become active in the policy discussions currently underway in our state capitol,” said Jeff Clark, president of the Advanced Power Alliance.

Clark said decisions being made by the legislature will affect Texas’ energy future for years to come. He said 79 percent of Texans support expanding the state’s use of renewable energy and their voices need to be heard during the important debates taking place.

“As has been well documented in state and national media, anti-renewables efforts, presumably – undoubtedly – funded by fossil fuel interests, are being conducted using tax-exempt ‘lobby charities’ to conceal donors’ identities and to conduct this advocacy under the guise of non-biased academic ‘think tanks’.”

Clark said dark money donors are collecting a tax write-off for their covert efforts meaning the taxpayers of this country are subsidizing their campaign. He said lawmakers deserve “accurate and honest information” and these groups don’t provide it, despite their pseudo-academic claims and tax-exempt status. 

In a news release, the Advanced Power Alliance. said “dark money donors” are publishing flawed and often factually-incorrect statements on renewables, deliberately designed to mislead decision makers and many times presenting as fact conclusions that run counter to the data-backed findings of our state’s grid operator (ERCOT) or the Independent Market Monitor (IMM).

“This secretly-funded, taxpayer-subsidized lobbying must be combatted. The funders of these efforts are working to mislead our state’s lawmakers and to protect their financial interest by preventing a transition to our state’s own cleaner, cheaper energy resources like wind, solar, and natural gas,” Clark said. 

“In the end, this jeopardizes the benefits that every Texan receives from renewable energy including: cleaner air and water, lower electric bills, a diversifying economy, jobs in rural areas, funding for our schools, capital investment, and a new source of income for our state’s farmers and ranchers.”

Here is the Vera guest column the Advanced Power Alliance sponsored in the Texas Tribune:

Everyone likes a good comeback story, and Starr County’s is one I am happy to tell.

As a rural border community, we have seen our share of difficult times, and the budget is always one of our biggest challenges. Finding the funds to meet the needs of our residents can be difficult, and just two years ago, we were forced to take out loans to keep the county running. Jobs were lost and critical government departments, including the sheriff’s office, saw severe budget cuts. Our situation was dire.

This year, I was proud to announce our county has paid off its debt. This was, in large part, due to the arrival of wind energy in our community. It saved us. A diversified tax base and a new stream of tax revenue has revived our county’s economy, and it is not just local government that has benefited: wind projects have paid millions to our school districts and other taxing jurisdictions. 

This change did not happen by accident. We worked hard to attract wind and other industry to our community. Through the local economic development tools known as Chapter 312 — the Property Redevelopment and Tax Abatement Act — and Chapter 313 — the Texas Economic Development Act — our county offered competitive incentives to attract billions of dollars of new investment.

Now, instead of debt, Starr County has a rainy day fund of $750,000, our unemployment rate is dropping and we are committed to lowering tax rates for our residents. None of that would have been possible without new development in our community. Hopefully, as a result of our partnerships, we can change the outcome for current and future residents of the Rio Grande Valley.

This is not the time to slow down. We must continue to strive for new economic investment. I am optimistic this positive trend will continue only if we preserve the vital economic development tools that have been tremendously successful for Starr County and other rural communities across Texas. I strongly encourage the 86th Texas Legislature to authorize the continuation and preservation of both Chapter 312 and Chapter 313. Help us keep our comeback story alive, and give other communities the opportunity to experience economic progress.