One of the things I enjoy doing in my writing about energy is dispelling popular myths that exist in our society. Due to my background in oil and gas, myths related to that industry have consumed most of my time over the years, given that there is no shortage of mythological thinking about that business.
Today’s story, though, is focused on solar energy, and a popular myth that the building of a solar array on a section of land basically condemns that land from any other productive use. Thanks to some cooperative hosts with solar company Lightsource BP, I was recently able to see first-hand that this is not necessarily the case.
Lightsource BP is a joint venture formed in 2010 that is 50% owned by London-based BP. Since the venture was formed 13 years ago, it has successfully installed 8.8 GW of solar generating capacity in dozens of countries around the world. As luck would have it, the company operates several solar arrays in Texas, and one of them – the Elm Branch Solar project – is located within about 40 miles from my home, near the tiny town of Bardwell, population 637 at last count.
When I made the drive out to the location one recent Friday afternoon, my phone’s Apple Maps app had a hard time locating the company’s on-site office. The array was easy to see, located right along the farm road, but I ended up driving up to two incorrect houses and disturbing the owners’ dogs before I was finally waved through the correct gate by a Lightsource BP employee who no doubt could see I was pretty lost.
The attraction of this particular project for me was not the solar array itself, but the company’s literature showing that a ranching operation was co-existing among it. Online photos are great, but since I come from a cattle ranching family, this was something I wanted to see for myself.
After introductions and a well-done safety briefing that was quite similar to the ones I used to conduct myself at a couple of different oil and gas companies, I piled into a pickup with several company employees, including one fellow who had driven several hundred miles from San Antonio that morning.
As we drove around the complex, which covers more than 900 acres, we talked about how the process and legal instruments involved in dealing with the landowners works. Interestingly, it is quite similar to how it all works in oil and gas, involving leases, lease bonus payments, payments for damages, access considerations, the building of roads and fences and other common details. Lightsource BP has about 1,300 acres under lease with 7 different landowners related to the Elm Branch project, but around 400 remain open ranchland. I was told the array produces about 87 MW of electricity, not an overwhelming amount, but enough to be a contributor as part of an integrated grid.
We drove around for about 15 minutes without seeing any animals, but as we came around one corner, there they suddenly were: Not cattle, but sheep.
At first we saw just a few animals here and there, milling and grazing amid the rows of solar panels. But as we drove down the road we came on a clearing where well more than 100 sheep were feeding and napping. It was birthing season in North Texas, and dozens of young lambs could be seen nursing and heard baying as a pair of white Great Pyrenees dogs kept a watchful eye out for coyotes, bobcats and other potential predators. The landowner was present when we drove up, and she told us her herd had produced more than 100 lambs in recent weeks.
Obviously, the land occupied by the solar array can’t be used for farming, but this particular land had not historically been used for that purpose in the past. The spacing between the rows of panels allows for plenty of sunlight to enable the growth of ample grasses for grazing purposes, and the rancher said her flock enjoys the shade the panels provide during the hot North Texas summers.
Just as obviously, it would be impossible to run cattle amid the array, because the beasts are too tall and could easily damage the equipment. But for a sheep-ranching operation like this one, the arrangement works fine, and the business deal with the solar company provides an extra income stream without harming the herd, just as so many farmers and ranchers have only been able to survive financially thanks to the drilling of a timely oil or gas well.
Unlike a standard oil and gas lease, which typically comes with a 3 to 5-year term during which a successful well may or may not be drilled, this solar lease comes with a 35-year term that includes a certain stream of annual income. It won’t make the rancher fabulously wealthy overnight like an oil gusher can, but then, oil gushers have never been a feature of this particular part of the vast Texas landscape.
All factors considered, it’s a pretty good match, one that we are likely to see many more of in the years to come. And thus, another energy myth is dispelled.
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