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The Marfa solar fight

A company wants to build a solar power plant in Marfa, and some residents there don’t like it.

In what she describes as an all-encompassing obsession, [Malinda] Beeman is fighting to preserve that lifestyle, which she and hundreds of other artists have discovered in the West Texas town of Marfa, by waging war with a company that has plans to erect at least 1,000 three-story mirrored satellite dishes — designed to harness the energy of the blisteringly bright desert sun and turn it into electrical power.

Presidio County Judge Jerry Agan and others in this tiny outpost find the opposition from the solar-fighters puzzling. Over the past two decades, creative spirits like Beeman have effectively transformed Marfa from a boarded-up dot on the map into a mecca for writers, painters and sculptors inspired by the desolate landscape. Most of the newcomers are the type you might expect to champion an investment in clean, alternative energy. “It’s astounding to me, because most of the people involved [in the opposition] are pro green power,” Agan says.

Tessera Solar, a London-based company with American headquarters in Houston, plans to install the solar power generation site — the first of its kind in Texas — on about 200 acres of land two miles east of Marfa. Power generated there will help keep the lights on and the air conditioning running some 400 miles east in San Antonio. The company plans to break ground on the project later this year. In its first phase, Tessera plans to install 1,080 of the huge mirrored discs — called SunCatchers — that will generate about 27 megawatts of power. CPS Energy, which supplies gas and electricity for San Antonio, will buy the energy from Tessera. Raul Cardenas, manager of renewable energy programs at CPS, says the initial phase will generate enough power for an average of about 4,000 homes. The project could eventually expand to include twice as many SunCatchers and take up some 600 acres, though Tessera says it’s unlikely the project would grow that large.

[…]

Agan and other longtime locals support the solar initiative; they support most anything that will bring jobs and tax revenue to an area that has long languished economically. But some residents of Antelope Hills — the rural neighborhood next door to the Tessera site — don’t view the project so positively. “The placement of this right here essentially is killing the subdivision,” Beeman says as she drives up to a freshly painted green gate that marks the private property where the solar plant will be erected. “People were going to build their little houses, they were going to add to the tax base, but now they see their property being worthless. It’s a horrible shock.”

There’s not enough information in the story for me to judge who’s “right”. Frankly, both sides may have valid points, and in the end it’ll be a simple matter of who has more juice. The one thing I do know is that if we’re going to get serious about green energy – and we clearly need to get serious about it – we’re going to see a lot more stories like this for the simple reason that as more wind and solar farms get built, more of them will be built near people who don’t want them as their neighbors. I can’t blame anyone for not wanting this in their back yard, and for all I know there is a better location for this one particular plant. But it’s not about this one plant. We did a lousy job as a society of giving people a say in where old-school, big-pollution power plants were located. We should do a better job of that with the next generation of such plants, without losing sight of the fact that we need to make it as reasonably easy as we can to get them built so we can usher out the old generation. Good luck with that.

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4 Comments

  1. I just found myself quoted on your blog, so it seems only right to respond. Several articles about the placement of a huge solar electrical generating plant right next to Marfa, have misconstrued my sentiments and my neighbors. We are absolutely not against having solar energy but our concern is that a corporation is making a very bad decision by building this industrial installation within a stones throw of a small historic Texas Town.

    Presidio County in West Texas is almost 4,000 square miles. It has only two towns, Marfa and Presidio. Marfa itself is only 1.6 square miles. Tessera Solar has made a decision to try and build an power plant on up to 800 acres that is as big or possibly bigger than the town of Marfa itself. The company looked at other properties a bit farther away but chose the one next to Marfa, because it was cheaper for them. Being closer to the substation was a savings for them. Sorry about the people who own any of the 76 (5 acre parcels) next to the property. Those people who either live there or had recently purchased property and planned to build modest little homes that would open up to a awe inspiring landscape. Now you might get to see ……..

    If their plans play out, Tessera Solar will place up to 2,000 solar disks that are 38 feet tall (at least 3 stories) within 1 mile of Marfa. Each dish has a motor on it that either clatters or hums (depends on who is describing it) at up to 70 decibels each. It is unclear how that will affect the “quiet” that so many people come to Marfa to enjoy.

    They must wash their dishes at night. The area around Marfa is next to MacDonald Observatory. We have a dark skies ordinance in the county. What is the effect of having a 800 acre industrial park (the size of a small town) with lights on at night?

    The company claims that the visitor will not have a 3 mile entrance to Marfa looking like a giant industrial park. They claim that the drive on Highway 90 from Alpine to Marfa will not be interrupted by a overwhelming installation of gleaming, humming 3 –story high dishes, transmission lines, out buildings and god know what else.

    This little town was nearing economic extinction when I came in the late 90’s. I cannot claim to have had a lot of effect on its recovery but there is no question that this town has been in a renaissance and it can really only be attributed to tourism. How many of the tourists who flee their urban environment to breath a sigh of relief in little Marfa are going to want to come back after they see what Marfa has become?

    Is this worth twenty jobs and some undetermined tax contribution (after abatements, depreciation) ? All that land around Marfa, and they could not find a piece of it a few miles farther out of town?

    Bottom line, this company really doesn’t care about Marfa. If Marfa wasn’t there, they could still build their plant, send the electricity to the grid and make their money. Frankly the town is really just going to be a convenient service center, to gas up and get a bite to eat. Over 100 years of history will be changed by this decision, that’s what we are really angry about.

    Malinda Beeman

  2. […] no one was quoted opposing the project. I hope it doesn’t have the same problems that the Marfa solar farm […]

  3. Frank Morrow says:

    Hi,
    Is it true that they are going to build a Walmart and H.E.B. at Marfa ? Anyone out there know about any other Walmarts and Food stores being built. If so, what Town.
    Thank You,
    Frank

  4. […] I said before, I don’t know enough about this specific project to know who I’d want to root for. In […]