Leaders in renewable energy talk continued growth in Starr County

RIO GRANDE CITY — Starr County has benefited from the construction of wind farms over the last couple of years and thus has seen firsthand the benefits of the renewable energy industry.

On Wednesday, the county welcomed leaders from three of those companies for a discussion on current state of renewable energy in Starr County, its economic impact and the future of the industry.

The event is part of a series of quarterly discussions held by the Starr County Industrial Foundation.

“Just a few years ago, we were having a lot of problems, financial problems, in the county because the price of natural gas,” said County Judge Eloy Vera, explaining the price had gone down from $5 to $8 per thousand cubic feet to less than a dollar. “So in that time, we lost over a billion dollars in value in Starr County.”

However, the economic situation began to look up when the wind energy companies stepped in.

“We do quite a bit of abatement, because that’s the way we can attract them,” Vera said regarding the agreement to reduce taxes for those companies, “but in the long run, Starr County is going to be much better off as we saw this last year.”

The county is currently host to wind farms constructed by Duke Energy Renewables which were completed in 2016.

EDP Renewables, which completed a wind farm project near Edinburg in 2016, is currently working on a second phase of that project to be located Starr County.

“It’s really a quite exciting time to be in the industry,” said Kris Cheney, director of project management at EDP Renewables. “We’re very excited about the opportunity to develop this additional phase here and the potential for future projects here in the Valley as well.”

Longroad Energy, a Boston-based company, is also currently working on another wind energy project called the Rio Bravo project. The 236 mega-watt project began construction a few months ago and is expected to be completed in June 2019, said Bryan Harris, director of development at Longroad Energy.

While renewable energy projects don’t bring a lot of long-term operating jobs, with this project expected to have about 10, there will be about 300 jobs during construction, Harris said.

When it comes to deciding where they’ll construct those projects, the representatives said it wasn’t just about incentives but about feeling welcome in a community.

“When we’re looking at building a project, we’re investing for the long term, we’re expecting that project to be there for at least 30 years,” Cheney said. “So for us, it’s really important to have community support and that comes from your elected officials, the land owners, the community in general — those folks who end up working and those folks who do see indirect benefits from the wind farms as well.”

However, one limiting factor in Starr, according to Cheney, was that the wind varies across the county but there are still large tracts of land with very good wind resources.

But the biggest possible limiting factor, Cheney said, is the capacity in transmission lines.

“We’re not there yet but if we keep building projects, we’re going to end up finding a limit where we don’t have the transmission available,” he said, “and that’s really the limiting factor.”

As the renewable energy industry continues to grow in Starr County, the focus for Bill Thomason of Thomason International falls on the future.

“One of the things I propose to young people out there is: OK, what’s next? What step can you go to?” Thomason said, “because we’re going to need engineers and people that are thinking out of the box to take it to the next level because there’s just so much potential.”