More communities are saying “not in my backyard” to clean energy projects. The Jefferson County Commission in Tennessee recently said “not now” to a new 250-MW energy storage project, passing a moratorium on permitting such projects until January 2024. Ten rural Ohio counties have banned new solar and wind installations under a state law that gives local jurisdictions the ability to stop renewable energy projects (though not new fossil fuel projects). And a study published by Columbia Law School’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law found that 228 jurisdictions across 35 states have enacted policies to restrict renewable energy projects.
Rising local opposition is threatening our clean energy future. Worse, this is happening just as funds from the Inflation Reduction Act — the biggest federal investment in climate and clean energy in U.S. history, and the biggest investment in rural power in a century — are hitting the street. How can we get from “not here” and “not yet” to a unified “yes here” and “now”?
There is no single source of the growing local opposition to clean energy projects. Some stems from an organized anti-solar campaign, including the efforts of activist groups with ties to fossil fuel interests. Misinformation is propagated across social media, including claims that solar panels will contaminate the soil or that lithium-ion batteries used for energy storage projects — the same type of batteries used in your cell phone — will cause fires and explosions.
Other more substantive concerns are rooted in the history of extractive economic relationships between rural and urban areas. Coal and other fossil fuels have long been mined and extracted from rural communities, damaging landscapes and compromising human health, to power urbanization and industrialization that disproportionately benefited cities.
That history echoes in today’s debates about clean power. Although less than 1% of the total landmass of the lower 48 states would be required to power the entire country with solar, deep concerns have emerged about the loss of agricultural land to energy production. Farmland — especially when it’s located near transmission lines — is often the most inexpensive sites for utility-scale solar projects. While fears of our nation losing its ability to grow enough food to feed our people may be overstated, the local impact of prime farmland converted to a solar field is visceral — particularly when America is losing about 1.8 million acres of farm and ranchland per year, primarily to urbanization.
Agriculture includes timber farming, and there are important questions emerging about sacrificing productive timberland to produce energy. Sometimes, these questions pit one environmental group against another, with greenhouse gas emission reductions facing off against traditional conservation values.
Economic equity hangs in the balance, too. Many large-scale renewable energy projects located in rural areas provide clean power and savings to large corporations that back these projects through power purchase agreements, including projects covering thousands of acres here in Georgia. While the solar projects provide tax revenue to the counties in which they’re located, local rural residents — often burdened with high poverty rates and high electricity bills — don’t share in the savings. This disconnect between people, place and project are the product of state-based energy market structures — not willful economic exclusion, but the impact is the same.
A “Made in America” clean energy future can do better, by connecting the value of clean energy with rural values. Here’s how:
First, thoughtful land-use planning benefits everyone. Solar developers can avoid prime farm-, timber-, or ranchland and incorporate those preferences into utility and corporate RFPs. Leading practices like agrivoltaic development, which pairs solar and agricultural land uses to the benefit of both, can result in more efficient energy and crop production. RFP tools, like Beyond the Megawatt, can inform local strategies.
Second, we can use applied research to improve deployment of clean energy technologies. This summer, Virginia Tech was awarded $3.4 million to study the environmental impacts of large-scale solar projects. The results of the university’s work will help to define the best ways to build renewable energy across the state.
Finally, use community benefit agreements to develop shared goals that transcend any single project. The product of engagement between developers and local governments and community members, these agreements may include commitments to local hiring, job training opportunities, shared savings, and other innovative approaches to connect project economics to local priorities. Corporate leaders can also help drive local benefits through their purchasing decisions: Google recently leveraged a large-scale solar buy through Sol Systems to deliver energy efficiency upgrades for low-income households across North and South Carolina.
Today, we have a choice. We can fight out our differences in county commissions across the country — continuing the clean energy battle that has raged for decades in Congress. Or we can listen to each other’s concerns and find new ways that urban clean energy demand can advance rural land conservation and community development priorities. As my husband always says, “There are three sides to every story: yours, mine, and the truth.” Once we set aside the cynical misinformation campaigns, there’s a lot of truth to the concerns rural residents across the country are expressing about what solar energy development may mean for their community and quality of life. Meeting in the middle and finding solutions together will lead to a better, and more unified, future for us all.
L. Michelle Moore is author of “Rural Renaissance: Revitalizing America’s Hometowns through Clean Power” and CEO of Groundswell. Her forthcoming Rural Renaissance Roadshow, on these topics is in Bentonville, Arkansas, from October 25 to 27.