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Fort Bend County for years has drawn major companies looking to invest in solar projects because of its proximity to Houston’s energy market, its comparative abundance of land and an eager county government seeking to benefit from the growing market.

It’s those factors, along with several others, that led Fort Bend County resident Stephen K. Brown II to help an Australia-based group launch a solar farm project in his home county after first looking at several other places, he said.

Brown is the interim CEO of Clean Energy Fund of Texas and former president of another renewable energy company called Capital Assets Energy. He helped Lendlease buy county land several years ago that is now being developed into a solar farm by Acciona, a Spain-based renewable energy company that is taking advantage of tax abatements offered by the county.

“Compared to those counties south of Houston – Brazoria and Galveston – there’s less flooding,” Brown said. “So, Fort Bend is more attractive.”

The county has been part of an almost quiet revolution in Texas, the rapid and dramatic expansion of the solar industry – a trend that looks set to continue even after some elected leaders lambasted the industry without evidence for causing the near-catastrophic failure of the state’s power grid during February’s winter storm.

Officials with the county did not respond to requests for comment by Monday afternoon about why they’ve decided to invest in solar projects.

“Solar is booming in Texas, and even more so since the storm,” said Nick Liberati, a spokesperson for EnergySage, a company that allows customers to compare prices from different solar companies.

In the week of the storm, searches on the company’s website increased about 226 percent from what they were before, Liberati said. The company saw a similar spike during a June heat wave in Texas, Liberati said.

The trend isn’t limited to only small-scale solar projects and individual consumers, however.

Acciona in June began construction on a $258 million solar farm in Fort Bend County that, once complete, will have a generating capacity of 317 megawatts, according to the company.

The company, echoing many of Brown’s claims, chose Fort Bend County because of its ample sun radiation, its vibrant, skilled and entrepreneurial community, a well-connected infrastructure and because of its proximity to the energy industry, said Mark Raventos, director of business development for Acciona Energy USA Global.

The state’s deregulated energy market also played a role, Raventos said. Power from the solar farm will feed into the grid governed by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT).

Acciona officials said they hope the plant will be operational in 2022, according to the news release.

Before February’s winter storm, officials with ERCOT estimated the state’s solar capacity would increase about 150 percent in 2020, up to 5,777 megawatts, according to a Texas Observer article. They also estimated the solar capacity would grow more than 130 percent in 2021, up to 13,449 megawatts.

The reason for the sudden boom is that solar panels and other technology are becoming at once cheaper and more efficient, said Brown.

Texas’ abundance of sunlight also made the region attractive for solar development, Brown said.

State leaders were for years either silent or praiseworthy of the industry’s development, that is until Gov. Greg Abbott went on Fox News in February and blamed wind turbines, solar power and the Green New Deal – a piece of proposed legislation not yet passed or implemented – for the failure of the state’s power grid.

That was despite the fact that the state’s energy overseers said renewable energy didn’t account for most of the issue.

During the storm, about 46,000 megawatts dropped off the grid via multiple sources, according to ERCOT. About 60 percent of what failed, or some 28,000 megawatts, was via thermal generators – goal, gas and nuclear. About 18,000 was lost via renewable resources.

Even before Abbott’s February interview, however, the bipartisan appeal of solar development had soured somewhat in recent years, Brown said.

“If you dug deep enough, I think you’ll find that a lot of the folks behind these projects were probably Republicans,” Brown said. “That’s why the state took such a laissez-faire attitude with solar and wind, and weren’t averse to it outwardly.”

The tenor began to change after the 2016 election, Brown said. By the time Brown was helping solar companies search for potential sites in Texas in 2017 and 2018, there was a marked difference in how counties received the idea, based on their political ideology, he said.

“A lot of the major projects would have been a big deal for hardening the grid and providing tax revenue, but conservative counties wanted to squash it,” he said. “They’d deter you looking at them as a spot.”

A county like Wharton, for instance, might reject all outreach, while Fort Bend County has offered tax incentives to solar companies looking to invest, Brown said.

In addition to Acciona’s work on the $258 million solar farm, Cypress Creek Renewables also operates a smaller project in Fort Bend County, Brown said.

But the future might sit with smaller-scale, community-based solar development in Fort Bend County, Brown said.

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