Tarrant County commissioners left the door open to joining a coalition of Texas local governments seeking millions in federal solar project funding after initially rejecting the proposal in July.
Republican commissioners originally opposed linking up with Harris County, Dallas County, Travis County, a group of border counties and the city of San Antonio to apply for hundreds of millions from the Environmental Protection Agency’s Solar for All program.
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.
County Judge Tim O’Hare and commissioner Manny Ramirez, who represents northwestern Tarrant County, raised concerns on July 18 about the impact of solar panels on home sales and potential influence on Tarrant County’s decisions from other urban counties. Commissioners voted 3-2, along party lines, against being part of the coalition.
This time around, on Aug. 15, commissioners didn’t vote on the matter but directed county staff to draft a proposed agreement with Harris County to join the coalition. Commissioners will decide whether to approve the agreement during their Aug. 29 meeting.
O’Hare asked staff to research why the state of Texas did not apply for the grant funding on its own, as well as the challenges homeowners have encountered selling homes with solar panels and the impact of solar on homeowners insurance and roof repair costs. He also requested an estimate of costs, if any, the county would incur to apply for the EPA grant.
“Every experience that I have had with anyone in real estate on an individual home that has it, it’s been a nightmare for them in a multitude of ways when it comes to selling,” O’Hare said.
Democrat Roy Brooks, who represents southwestern Tarrant County, said joining the coalition would preserve the option for residents to benefit from funding coming down from the federal government.
“We can’t play if we’re not at the table,” Brooks said. “Just because we’re at the table, it doesn’t obligate us to do anything we don’t want to do. But if we’re not at the table, we’re not in line for any of the benefits.”
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.
“Since there are a limited number of grantees anticipated, a coalition approach to applying for funding would be a beneficial strategy for drawing down these grant funds,” Schaffner wrote.
Several speakers urged commissioners to see how the federal money would lower utility costs for both the county and low-income households that the EPA was targeting for relief.
“It’s about the money. It’s a taxpayer savings,” said retired Lockheed Martin engineer Patra Stroemer. “We almost always save more money by partnering. It gives us the best chance of obtaining the most money and provides the most efficient and fiscally responsible way to use the funds for the optimum benefit of our county.”
If Tarrant joins coalition, United Way likely to serve as partner
Democrat Alisa Simmons, who represents southeastern Tarrant County, introduced the idea of joining the group of Texas counties last month. After the measure was voted down, 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 due on Sept. 26. Applicants selected for the grant will begin receiving funds in 2024 and continue implementing the program over five years.
Tarrant County doesn’t have the technical expertise or administrative capability to implement Solar for All on its own, Schaffner found. Administering the program would require creating a new department or substantially expanding an existing one, he wrote.
United Way of Tarrant County has emerged as a potential partner to dispense grant funds and oversee management of the program. Leah King, the president and CEO of United Way, told commissioners her organization is prepared to take on Solar for All — with the county’s support.
“We want to come alongside the county and provide our services if that is desired and necessary,” King said. “We really think that a collaborative approach is something that the federal government is looking for. Tarrant County residents deserve our share of (funding).”
Ramirez raised the prospect of United Way joining the coalition without the county’s participation, but King said the grant application will be more attractive to the EPA if local governments are involved.
If the coalition moves forward, Harris County will serve as the lead organization to submit an application to the EPA. Harris County hired the nonprofit Houston Advanced Research Center, or HARC, to develop the application and identify projects in each community. Coalition members will need to figure out how to share costs on the HARC contract, Schaffner said.
Tarrant County staff will also require direction from commissioners as to which solar projects to prioritize in the application. 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.
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.
Haley Samsel is the environmental reporter for the Fort Worth Report. You can reach them at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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