Tarrant County commissioners voted 3-2 against joining a coalition vying for millions of dollars in federal solar power funding, citing concerns about potential negative impacts of solar panels and an overall lack of information about the proposal.
“My no vote on this is not, ‘We’re done, we’re finished, I don’t want to ever see it again,’” County Judge Tim O’Hare said. “I don’t have enough information to give a yes to this.”
Texas is eligible for $400 million in grants as part of a ‘Solar for All’ grant competition hosted by the Environmental Protection Agency. The grants are intended to increase the number of low-income communities with access to affordable solar energy.
Four large counties — Harris, Dallas, Travis and Bexar — are joining together to create the Solar for All Texas Consortium. The consortium’s creation is designed to help make the counties more competitive for the federal grant funding.
Commissioner Alisa Simmons put forward a resolution for Tarrant County to join the consortium. Joining, she said, would be a no-cost move that puts the county in a better position to secure Solar for All grants. Simmons and commissioner Roy Brooks, both Democrats, were the lone ‘yes’ votes for the proposal.
Nathan Smith, community outreach coordinator for Simmons’ precinct, said Tarrant County would sit on a governance board along with other counties’ representatives to determine which solar panel project proposals to submit to the federal government. Those proposals would come from local nonprofit partners, meaning the counties themselves would have to do minimal work.
The resolution was met with strong opposition from the three Republican members of the commissioners court, who raised concerns about a lack of information and potential problems with solar investment.
“If I asked everybody on this court … who has solar panels on their home, my guess is it would be zero,” O’Hare said.
He said he’s heard countless stories from people who can’t sell their homes after they install solar panels on them. Commissioner Gary Fickes likened solar panel installations to second mortgage scams, which quietly place more debt on homeowners.
Simmons stressed that joining the consortium wouldn’t result in automatic solar panel installations for individual residents. Instead, any consortium proposals would come from local nonprofits, and be larger in focus.
“Solar is not something you force on low-income families,” she said. “All this money, somebody is going to get it, and it’s going to go somewhere. It just won’t be Tarrant County. It could just be ignorance, not knowing more information, but someone is going to be awarded this money, and we’re saying we’re not interested in it.”
O’Hare said if Simmons wanted the proposal to be seriously considered, he welcomed her working with county staff to research the pros and cons of joining the consortium and any legal ramifications.
Commissioner Manny Ramirez said he would be in favor of the county submitting grant proposals to the EPA on its own, rather than joining the multi-county consortium.
“Quite frankly, when it comes to how we disseminate the funds to our citizens, the criteria we place, I don’t want Travis, Bexar and Harris telling us how to disseminate this money to our citizens,” he said.
Smith said a joint application, as with joining the consortium, would likely be more competitive than the county submitting a proposal on its own.
Lon Burnam, a former Democratic state representative who spent more than a decade in the Legislature, implored commissioners to join the consortium.
He pointed to his own experience in the city of Fort Worth’s economic development office. There, he and his fellow staff members spent a lot of time and effort trying to save energy and create energy independence. This consortium, he said, could offer another opportunity to further those goals.
“It’s not wise, it’s not smart, it’s not in the best interest of the public and social service agencies in this county,” to turn down the grant opportunity, Burnam said.
Brandy O’Quinn, a former TechFW executive and current leader of the North Texas Electric Transportation Compact, was disappointed by the outcome after helping facilitate conversations between Simmons’ office and Dallas County officials about the coalition. Last summer, O’Quinn was a lead advocate for the county’s move to explore transitioning its vehicle fleet from gas-powered to electric.
Tarrant County is eligible for 4.6% of EPA funding headed to the state, O’Quinn said. Now the county is likely to be left off the list, she added.
“(The county) will not be able to provide energy efficient resources for its residents and hard-working families,” O’Quinn said. “It is arrogant to think EPA is going to entertain an application from Tarrant County when all the large counties created a coalition, which is what EPA wanted.”
If commissioners want to revisit joining the consortium and submitting proposals with the other counties, they will have to operate on a tight timeline. The final deadline for submitting grant proposals is Sept. 26.
Reporter Haley Samsel contributed reporting to this story.
Emily Wolf is a government accountability reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter.
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