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Facing high-interest rates complicating clean-energy projects nationwide, the developers of a giant solar farm planned for the site of a former city dump in Sunnyside will miss their deadline to begin construction later this month.

The firm behind the project said it is still working to secure “final” financing. The delay means that the company eventually will be forced to return to City Council for additional approval. Nevertheless, District D Councilmember Carolyn Evans-Shabazz said she expects the solar farm to move forward.

“Of course, there are always delays with construction projects. I am very encouraged that it is going to proceed and it is going to provide such an economic benefit to the Sunnyside community,” she said Thursday.

The solar farm is slated for a notorious former city dump and incinerator site between Reed Road and Bellfort Avenue off Texas State Highway 280.

For decades, the city’s practice of placing landfills and incinerators in Black and brown neighborhoods served as a symbol of economic injustice. The dump in Sunnyside was closed in the 1970s amid community protests. In the decades since, it has become a magnet for vagrancy and illegal dumping.

Community members partnered with solar developers to propose adapting the site as a large-scale solar farm. The city in 2021 approved a plan involving a private company that has since been acquired by the New York-based investment firm CleanCapital.

If all goes well, the dump’s 240 acres will play host to a 52-megawatt solar panel array, making the project the largest brownfield solar installation in the country. The project is supposed to include a 150-megawatt capacity battery, a traditional 50-megawatt solar array and a 2-megawatt “community solar” installation intended to reduce energy prices for area residents.

The developers have also promised that benefits will flow back to Sunnyside in the form of jobs set aside for residents.

As of December, the company was planning to begin construction by this spring. That would have allowed CleanCapital to meet a March 21 deadline set out in its lease of the city-owned land.

In a statement Thursday, however, the developer acknowledged that it will not meet that deadline. Carly Battin, CleanCapital’s senior director for strategy and communications, said the company has requested a lease extension from the city.

“There are a few challenges we are working to address before construction can begin, chief among them securing final financing in this high-interest rate environment,” Battin said.

How do high-interest rates affect renewable energy?

The financing woes are hardly unique to CleanCapital. High-interest rates have dragged down renewable energy stocks over the past year.

Nevertheless, analysts say that the federal subsidies for clean energy under President Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 should help the industry build on last year’s record-setting number of new solar installations.

Trees cover a city dump site on Friday, Dec. 8, 2023, in Sunnyside. The property is slated to become a giant solar farm.
Trees cover a city dump site on Friday, Dec. 8, 2023, in Sunnyside. The property is slated to become a giant solar farm. (Annie Mulligan / Abdelraoufsinno)

Along with the delays on CleanCapital’s side, another key part of the project has yet to be completed. Under the terms of its lease, the firm is supposed to make a $200,000 annual rent payment that can be used for neighborhood projects under what is known as a community benefits agreement. The city has yet to craft such a pact, however.

Mary Benton, a City Hall spokesperson, said it was too early to say whether the mayor will seek a lease extension from City Council.

“Like all other projects in the city, the mayor is taking his first few months in office to review information, plan details and data related to projects he inherited from the previous administration,” she said.

CleanCapital’s spokesperson struck an optimistic tone, however.

“We look forward to working with the Council and Mayor Whitmire’s staff to establish new deadlines and move this important project forward. We have had a productive working relationship with the city throughout the life of this project and look forward to continuing that partnership with the new administration,” Battin said.

Along with turnover at the top – from former Mayor Sylvester Turner to Whitmire becoming mayor – the project also faces change at the department level. Last week Andy Icken, the longtime chief development officer for Houston who was one of the project’s champions at City Hall, resigned.

Evans-Shabazz said she is confident that Whitmire will support the project going forward.

“I believe that he is committed to completing this project and is actually excited for the community, as I am,” she said.

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Matt Sledge is the City Hall reporter for the Abdelraoufsinno. Before that, he worked in the same role for the Times-Picayune | New Orleans Advocate and as a national reporter for HuffPost. He’s excited...