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Development continues on solar project with local input

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    Pine Gate Renewables met with the Bandera County Historical Commission late last year and conducted a site visit of the Rio Lago Solar Project. Pictured from left are Meg Witte, Associate Project Manager, Pine Gate Renewables; Ryan Blankenship, Senior Wildlife Biologist at Stantec; Rebecca Norton, Bandera Historical Commission; and Ray Carter, Bandera Historical Commission. Courtesy Photo
  • Article Image Alt Text
    Development of the Rio Lago Solar Project continues with input from local community representatives. Pictured from left are Gary Fest, of the Texas Master Naturalist Hill Country Chapter; Veronica Hawk of the Texas Master Naturalist Hill Country Chapter who is also certified in Native Plant Landscapes with the Native Plant Society of Texas Boerne Chapter; Meg Witte, Associate Project Manager for Pine Gate Renewables; and Drew Chandler, Director of Project Development for Pine Gate Renewables. Courtesy Photo

Pre-construction development on Pine Gate Renewables’ solar project on FM 3240 has continued with input from local organizations, with construction expected to commence later this year.

“It is our priority to be a good neighbor in the communities where we have projects, and that involves working directly with members of the community in all phases of a project,” said Forrest Coldren, Rio Lago Project Manager for Pine Gate Renewables.

Last February, the Bandera Independent School District School Board voted unanimously to not move forward with a Chapter 313 tax agreement with Pine Gate Renewables, but that tax agreement was not directly related to the construction of a solar project, which will be built on private land.

Project officials told the Bulletin construction is expected on the project, which they have named Rio Lago, to begin in Q3 or Q4 of 2023, with operations going live late 2024.

“We will continue to communicate with the Bandera community about our construction timeline and operational readiness as the project progresses,” said Project Representative Alan Goss. “We are in communication with the Bandera Chamber of Commerce and plan to work with the Chamber and the Bandera County Convention & Visitors Bureau as construction gets closer to make sure aspects of construction are coordinated appropriately to mitigate any potential disturbances to major local events as much as possible.”

Meanwhile, the project is being tweaked following feedback and meetings with residents and leaders in the community.

“It has been a true pleasure getting to know folks in the Bandera community and working closely with public officials, Bandera residents and property owners, and local organizations like Texas A&M Agrilife, the Chamber of Commerce, Texas Master Naturalists, Native Plant Society of Texas and the Bandera Historical Commission,” said Goss. “The questions, feedback and local knowledge we’ve heard have helped the team develop this important project in a way that supports the Bandera community as well as Texas’ future as a leading energy producer by bringing clean, cost-effective, and reliable power to Texas.”

Based on received feedback, Pine Gate Renewables recently announced four adjustments to the construction plan for the solar project.

First, solar panels will now be up to 200 feet from the property line in certain areas as opposed to the initially announced 50, with increased setbacks in place along property lines for adjacent neighboring residences.

Second, Pine Gate will surround the project with a wildlife permeable fence and plant a vegetative buffer in certain areas to shield the project from numerous viewpoints. Officials say a variety of native plants and trees are planned for areas where the solar field is next to residential properties and along public roadways.

Third, the solar project will connect to existing transmission lines and any new electrical lines will be buried underground where possible.

Project officials told the Bulletin Pine Gate Renewables will connect to a single existing transmission line owned by Bandera Electric Cooperative on the project property and will not construct additional transmission lines. They added the various sections of the solar facility will be connected by a lower voltage line placed underground to lessen the visual impact.

Finally, a wall with a stonelike facade designed to match local architecture will also be constructed at the substation to further lessen the visual impact from roadways and neighboring properties. Project representatives told the Bulletin a wall at the substation was suggested by community members because it would provide immediate screening of the substation from FM 3240, whereas a vegetative buffer would need more time to grow and might not reach the same level of opacity as a wall.

Pine Gate Renewables met with the Bandera County Historical Commission late last year and conducted a site visit of the property with commission Chair Rebecca Norton, Vice-Chair Ray Carter, Bandera County Commissioner Jack Moseley, and archaeologist Melissa Green and wildlife biologist Ryan Blankenship of Stantec Environmental Consulting.

Norton said area residents had contacted her with concerns there were Native American mounds on the project’s property.

“While an archaeological site has been documented on the property, there are no constructed mounds on the site,” said Norton, adding the area appeared to be a temporary site used by Native Americans to find stone to make projectile points. “Other than an existing animal pen that was once used as a slaughterhouse that was built sometime in the 1930s, there were no other historic buildings or sites on the property.”

The historical commission said they still requested solar panels not be constructed in those areas. Pine Gate Renewables noted they will work to incorporate this feedback into the project’s final design plan, which will be completed in the coming months.

“We are greatly appreciative of the Commission’s time and expertise, and their willingness to provide another level of due-diligence on the Rio Lago project site,” said Drew Chandler, Pine Gate Renewables’ Director of Project Development.

Chandler said the project recently met with the Texas A&M Agrilife Extension Office in Bandera, the National Plant Society of Texas Boerne Chapter, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Kerrville office, and the Texas Master Naturalist Hill Country chapter to hear local expertise about the right type of native plants, grasses, trees and wildflowers to include in the project’s landscape design plan.

“Our goal is to utilize vegetation in the project area, for vegetative buffers and pollinator habitats that is native to the local area and beneficial to the land, environment, wildlife and insect populations on our project site,” said Chandler.

Project Manager Forrest Coldren said final environmental and hydrology studies are planned in the coming months in advance of construction launch.

Speaking of construction, Coldren says Pine Gate Renewables is preparing to seek construction bids.

“To date, we have assisted two regional firms in their qualification application for construction bids for the Rio Lago Solar project,” she said. “If additional contractors or businesses are interested in working on the Rio Lago project, they can contact us through the project website: pinegaterenewables.com/rio-lago.”

Coldren added additional job opportunities will be announced around Q2 of 2023.

“In terms of job numbers, we anticipate the project will provide for more than 200 jobs over the course of construction, which includes major contractors and sub-contractors, as well as individual jobs needed for various aspects of the construction process,” she said.

Once construction is complete, Pine Gate Renewables anticipates having one permanent local resource for site maintenance and operational responsibilities, as well as a contract with a local company to assist with the ongoing landscaping maintenance of the project area.

According to Pine Gate Renewables, the current land lease with the property owner is for 20 years and features extension options which could add an additional two decades. They note their panels are built to last 40 years and have a decommissioning plan in place for removal of all materials.

More information about the project as well as contact information is available at pinegaterenewables.com/rio-lago.