A Massive Solar Farm May Be a Boon to Houston's Sunnyside. Or Not.
In south Houston, Sunnyside residents hope a solar farm set to cover a former city dump will prove the exception to findings that large installations of energy-producing solar panels hurt property values in nearby neighborhoods.
The city project, being built by Wolfe Energy, would produce enough power for about 5,000 homes. Along with its planned hiking and biking trails and aquaponic farming space, the 240-acre development could be a boon to this low-income neighborhood, some residents say. But recent studies, including one from the University of Texas at Austin, show that solar farms depress nearby home values.
Homebuyers are reluctant to live near the vast arrays of panels that click throughout the day as they adjust to capture the sun’s energy. Power generation sites — no matter how “green” — are unpopular neighbors, the recent research shows.
For example, prices of homes within a mile of utility-size solar projects in New England were 1.7 percent lower than homes farther away, according to a recent University of Rhode Island study. Within a tenth of a mile of the solar arrays, home prices were 7 percent lower.
A similar pattern emerged in a survey of property appraisers, who said the negative effect of solar farms on home prices worsens the closer a home is to a large-scale solar project, according to a survey by the University of Texas at Austin. Prices were negatively affected up to 1,000 feet from a small 1.5-megawatt site that would cover as much as 12-acres and up to one mile from a 102-megawatt site that would cover up to 816 acres, almost the size of New York’s Central Park.
Large-scale solar sites are known for killing birds that swoop down on the shiny surfaces expecting a lake, said one building expert. They’re devoid of vegetation with the land clear cut to accommodate the solar panels. And they are never installed in wealthy neighborhoods but in remote areas where property values are already low.
Solar arrays are in the same category as oil fields and dumps, said Will Holder, professor of practice in home building at the Department of Engineering Technology at Texas State University.
“There are just things that people don’t want to be near,” said Holder.
Solar energy, however, is the fastest growing source of power in Texas, providing about 2 percent of electricity generating capacity in 2019. In Texas last December, utility-scale solar installations could produce up to 2,281 megawatts of power, according to the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which manages the state power grid. With one megawatt of electricity able to power about 200 Texas homes on a summer day, the state’s large-scale solar installations at the close of last year could power more than 450,000 homes, nearly the number of households in San Antonio.
But the utility-size solar projects popping up all over Texas have become a contentious issue among property owners. A Facebook group named Wharton County Against Solar Farms opposes waiving school and other taxes for solar projects, including the Aktina Solar power plant, which is expected to be the largest utility scale project in Texas when it begins operations next year about 90 miles southwest of Houston. The project is owned by Houston-based Tokyo Gas America, which did not return calls for comment.
Plans for a 127-megawatt solar farm in unincorporated Van Zandt County in East Texas bitterly divided the ranching community, pitting landowners who say the panels would destroy pastoral views and threaten the ranching ecosystem against those who benefited financially by leasing property to California-based Pattern Energy.
“People move for the rural character like the farms and forested lands so when a solar development comes in, it just changes the character of the development,” said Cory Lang, associate professor of environmental economics at University of Rhode Island and author of the solar study.
Thousands of dollars lost
Solar installations are most often put on farm land and forested areas, two prized types of neighboring land many homebuyers look for when shopping for properties, according to the University of Rhode Island study that examined 400,000 housing transactions from 2005 to 2019 within 3 miles of large solar sites.
The installations’ industrial appearances put off some homebuyers, the research found. Homeowners said they preferred the solar sites more when tucked away and moved out of sight.
The study, which looked at property values in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, found that property values declined by an average of nearly $6,000 within 1 mile of a major solar installation. That’s not a lot per home, according to the study, but when the value of all the property within that 1-mile radius is taken together, the total loss is significant.
But the solar industry says large-scale solar farms often have no measurable impacts on the value of adjacent properties and may even have positive effects. Large solar projects are typically enclosed by fencing and decorated with landscaping, taking on similar characteristics of greenhouses or single-story homes, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association
CITY’S BIG PUSH: Hopes rise that solar farm will transform landfill site
Groups fighting renewable energy have spread misinformation about the effects on property values of such projects for years, said Jeffrey Clark, president of Austin-based trade association Advanced Power Alliance. But after construction, there are few things more serene than a solar farm, quietly producing affordable clean power for Texas, and paying substantial taxes to support schools and local governments, he said.
“Landowners, especially farmers and ranchers, want the reliable income that renewable energy projects provide, and communities want to diversify their tax bases,” he said. “All of these reasons are why solar energy is popular, welcome and rapidly growing.”
The Sunnyside of solar
In Sunnyside, the $70 million solar farm would help the city transform contaminated property that once was considered for a golf course or office complex, which were more expensive propositions. Construction on the project is expected to begin in 2022.
Jarvis Scott grew up in Sunnyside and he likes the expanse of woods that borders one side of a large community park, complete with swimming pool, indoor gym and community center.
“Leave it just the way it is,” Scott said during a recent afternoon walk with his dog.
But other residents welcome the development as another way to boost property values and spur gentrification in the area.
Out-of-state investors are helping to boost Sunnyside land prices as they snap up parcels and build new houses. A lot that cost $10,000 to $15,000 five years ago, now goes for $40,000 to $50,000, said Johnny Hollins, owner of J.C. Hollins Builders. He bought a three-bedroom, two-bathroom house that he is remodeling across the street from what will become the new solar farm.
Hollins applauds other changes in Sunnyside, such as new concrete driveway aprons and culverts that are replacing drainage ditches. The solar farm might be acting as the catalyst for neighborhood improvements, he said.
“That may be what they’re gearing up for,” he said. “I think it will be great for the community.”
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