After more than a month of back-and-forth debate, Tarrant County will join a coalition of urban Texas counties seeking federal solar funds through the Environmental Protection Agency’s Solar for All program.
County commissioners narrowly approved the move during their Aug. 29 meeting. Republican Gary Fickes joined Democrats Alisa Simmons and Roy Brooks in a 3-1 vote, with Republican County Judge Tim O’Hare opposing the measure. Manny Ramirez, a Republican who represents northwest Tarrant County, was absent Tuesday.
“Joining this consortium does not obligate anybody to do anything. Joining this consortium gives people choices, and choices in America is what we all ought to be about,” Brooks said. “We cannot stand alone when it comes to generating energy for the citizens of the state of Texas. We must join with others.”
Established by the Inflation Reduction Act, the competitive grant program will give $7 billion to communities across the U.S. with the goal of lowering energy bills and providing solar energy to low-income and disadvantaged communities. The EPA will award up to 60 grants across the country, with Texas eligible for up to $400 million.
In an Aug. 8 report, Assistant County Administrator Russell Schaffner called Solar for All a “historic program” that could make tens of millions of dollars available to Tarrant County for solar investment and workforce development opportunities.
Simmons introduced the idea of linking up with Harris County, Dallas County, Travis County, the city of San Antonio and a group of border counties last month. After the measure was voted down in July, Tarrant County missed an Aug. 14 deadline to notify the EPA of its intention to apply, meaning the county cannot apply on its own for the grant, Schaffner said.
However, the county can still be part of the coalition’s application, which is due Sept. 26. Harris County will serve as the lead organization to submit an application to the EPA, while Dallas is taking the lead on North Texas elements of the project.
Tarrant County staff will work with community partners and Dallas County to establish solar project priorities for the region, according to the resolution. Applicants selected for the grant will begin receiving funds in 2024 and continue implementing the program over five years.
Simmons compared the Solar for All application to the county’s acceptance of $408 million from the American Rescue Plan Act, established to help communities economically recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Taking federal dollars for equity issues is not new for Tarrant County,” Simmons said. “This federal grant gives us a new revenue stream, and that’s what we should be looking for on this court.”
Despite their disagreements over many policy issues, Fickes said he agreed with Simmons’ points and would support the effort after initially opposing it in July. O’Hare said his vote against the grant program does not detract from his support of low-income families.
“You can be against this and still be for helping low-income families, and you can be against this and still be a patriotic American,” O’Hare said, referring to a speaker’s call for commissioners to fulfill their patriotic duties. “I personally have seen too many problems from real estate transactions and deals dealing with solar. That is undeniable.”
Nearly a dozen speakers rose to argue for and against applying for the Solar for All grant. Some questioned the reliability of solar energy’s contributions to the Texas electricity grid during power shortages. Kenya Alu, executive director of the Tarrant County chapter of Citizens Defending Freedom, criticized the EPA program as a “socialist” taxpayer-funded initiative.
“Not only is this an expense that taxpayers should not be burdened with, but manufacturing solar panels and then disposing of them when they’re no longer in use does nothing for our environment,” Alu said.
Several other speakers said installing solar at the federal government’s expense would benefit the county’s bottom line. Potential projects include “community solar,” in which the county or a hired vendor would own solar facilities and sell the power to Oncor, offsetting electric costs and sometimes earning income, according to Schaffner’s report.
Other ideas include installing solar panels on critical county facilities, such as publicly owned housing, and passing the savings on energy costs to residents. Tarrant County could look to give tax credits to solar vendors, who would then pass that savings onto the homeowner, Schaffner wrote. The county can also consider providing residents with grants to purchase solar facilities on their own.
Brandy O’Quinn, a former TechFW executive and current leader of the North Texas Electric Transportation Compact, said expanding solar and renewable energy will help Tarrant County attract businesses. The program will help low-income residents reduce utility bills that have surged because of extreme weather and climate change, O’Quinn said.
“More and more companies looking to relocate also want to know that communities are providing the available resources equitably to all residents, especially helping hard-working families offset the increased cost of living,” she said.
Regardless of individual opinions on the value of solar, the money has already been allocated by the federal government, said Linda Hanratty, a longtime League of Women Voters of Tarrant County leader.
“As a federal taxpayer, I’ve paid my share of that,” Hanratty said. “As a taxpayer, I want us to get our share.”
Haley Samsel is the environmental reporter for the Fort Worth Report. You can reach them at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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