There Goes the Sun

In the tiny outpost of Marfa, residents who opposed the build-out of a massive solar power plant can thank the languishing economy for putting the project on hold. Tessera Solar has scotched plans to erect 1,000 three-story mirrored satellite dishes until further notice.

SunCatchers that Tessera Solar plans to install near Marfa.
SunCatchers that Tessera Solar plans to install near Marfa.  Tessera Solar

In the tiny artists' outpost of Marfa, residents who opposed the build-out of a massive solar power plant can thank the languishing national economy for putting the project on hold. 

Citing a lack of investors, Houston-based Tessera Solar has scotched plans to erect at least 1,000 three-story mirrored satellite dishes — designed to convert the blisteringly bright desert sun into electricity — until further notice. The solar project had created a chasm in the community, dividing those who embraced the potential for new jobs and tax revenue and those who worried the silvery sun catchers would blight the barren desert landscape. 

The construction was part of Tessera's contract, now defunct, to provide solar power to CPS Energy, which supplies gas and electricity for San Antonio. "There's no expected construction or completion date until these financial markets strengthen," says Janette Coates, a Tessera spokeswoman. But she adds the company hasn't given up on the project altogether. "We still plan on developing it and pursuing it," she says.

And opponents of the project still plan on opposing it. "We’re not going to rest on our laurels," says Melinda Beeman, an artist whose home is about a half-mile from the proposed site. Beeman, who moved to this desert spot for its tranquil beauty more than a decade ago, led the locals' revolt against Tessera.

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Tessera and CPS Energy signed their 20-year deal in May 2009. Under the terms, Tessera had until Aug. 31 to secure financing for the solar plant. The company planned to install 1,080 of its huge mirrored discs — called SunCatchers — on about 200 acres of land two miles east of Marfa. The discs would generate about 27 megawatts of power, which would run lights and air conditioners about 400 miles east in San Antonio. The initial phase would have generated enough power for an average of about 4,000 homes, but the contract would have allowed an expansion of up to twice as many SunCatchers on up to 600 acres. Neither CPS nor Tessera officials would disclose the value of the deal.

Tessera had planned to break ground on the project later this year. As the deadline drew closer, though, the company had still not found the money to build the solar installation. Raul Cardenas, the manager of renewable energy programs at CPS, says Tessera sent word shortly before the deadline that it planned to terminate the contract. CPS still has a goal to generate 1,500 megawatts per year of renewable energy by 2020, Cardenas says, and will seek another company to fill the 27 megawatt gap left by Tessera's withdrawal.

Coates cites uncertainty in financial markets as the reason for the company's failure to secure investors. Its projects in California are still on schedule, however, and the West Texas plan could be revived. "Hopefully, we can work with CPS Energy and the city of San Antonio down the road," Coates says.

Beeman is prepared to fight whatever comes next. Given the national movement toward renewable energy, she believes her desert home will remain tantalizing to energy developers like Tessera. Though she has no problem with renewable energy, she wants to preserve the unique countryside that has attracted hundreds of artists like her to the West Texas desert. Beeman and many of her neighbors worry about noise from the giant discs and light pollution that could spoil the starry night sky. (Facility plans called for lights to illuminate maintenance work on the panels at night.) After the uproar Tessera caused in the tiny town, Beeman says she hopes local officials will consider adopting development rules for companies that want to set up shop in Presidio County. "This is really the time to try to develop a responsible process for assessing these projects," she says.

Presidio County Judge Paul Hunt says the stall on the Tessera project isn't a huge blow for the economically disadvantaged region, since the company only planned to create about 20 jobs. The Big Bend Sentinel reported that Tessera officials told a March meeting with the Marfa Chamber of Commerce that the project would mean $200,000 to $400,000 for to the county’s tax base. That's the biggest potential impact to the county, Hunt says, along with additional dollars the company had offered to provide the local school district for science education. "I'm hoping that still may evolve," Hunt says, "but I don’t know."

Even without Tessera's project, Hunt says, other infrastructure enhancements already under way will improve the local economy and daily life in the remote region. There's the $25 million sodium sulfur battery — locals call it BOB, for Big Ole Battery — recently installed in Presidio, just south of Marfa, which will keep the little border town burning bright even during power outages. And there's a new power transmission line under construction between Marfa and Presidio to expand capacity and help prevent the all-too-frequent power outages. "There's quite a bit of things going on out here," Hunt says.

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