Special Report-U.S. solar expansion stalled by rural land-use protests -Breaking
© Reuters. At the Desert Stateline site near Nipton (California), U.S.A. August 16, 2021, solar panels can be seen. REUTERS/Bridget Bennett
By Nichola Groom
(Reuters) – The Solar Star facility in California, which boasts 1.7 million solar panels and is located on 3,000 acres in northern Los Angeles, is one of the most important facilities for solar energy. This massive scale is a reminder of an unsettling fact in the solar industry. On 122 acres, a power station 100 miles to the south can produce the same amount.
The dynamic encapsulates the industry’s biggest obstacle to growth: Solar farms require huge amounts of land, and there’s a fast-growing movement, fueled by politicized social-media campaigns, to prevent solar developers from permitting new sites in rural America.
That’s a major problem for the transition away from fossil fuels to combat climate change. Solar currently makes up 3% of U.S. electricity supply and could reach 45% by 2050 to meet the Biden administration’s goals to eliminate or offset emissions by 2050, according to the Department of Energy. According to DOE, for the U.S. Solar industry to reach that level, it will need a larger land area than Massachusetts. There is no other option. The land must be level, dry and sunny. It also needs to have a transmission network that can transport the power to its destination. See graphic to compare solar land usage with other sources of energy:
Local governments, activist groups, and others are working together to prevent solar developers from proposing sprawling, new projects across the country, including in Texas, Virginia, Kansas, Maine and Texas. These reasons range from aesthetics to harm property values, fears of safety and the loss or destruction of farmland, culture and wildlife habitat, to name just a few.
“This is increasingly one of the top barriers that we’re going to face,” said Steve Kalland, executive director of the North Carolina Clean Energy Technology Center, a research center that supports clean energy development nationwide. “If we can’t get projects sited and deployed, then we’re going to have real problems on our hands.”
Officials at the White House and the Department of Energy, who are pushing for a rapid expansion of solar power, did not comment on the industry’s land-acquisition problems.
Most cases of opposition are organized via Facebook (NASDAQ):, where there have been a lot more pages dedicated to blocking solar development in recent years. Pages address legitimate concerns like the destruction of trees and soil, as well misinformation regarding climate change, and possible health dangers from solar electricity. False claims range from the argument that climate change is fake to the absurd assertions that solar farms can leach the cancer-causing cadmium into soils and waterways, or produce very little electricity.
Reuters identified 45 groups or pages on Facebook dedicated to opposing large solar projects, with names such as “No Solar in Our Backyards!” and “Stop Solar Farms.” Only nine existed prior to 2020, and nearly half were created in 2021. They have close to 20,000 members.
“For every single large-scale solar project, you’re seeing very well-organized opposition on social media,” said Matthew Sahd, a solar market analyst for energy research firm Wood Mackenzie. “It’s very impressive what these local communities are able to organize.”
Beth Snider, of Virginia’s Page County Citizens for Responsible Solar, said she believes solar developers are using the climate change issue to justify profit-making businesses that hurt the environment in other ways.
“The solar companies don’t care about the environment – the farmland, and the rural communities they will destroy to get these projects,” she said. “They are all about the money.”
The construction of large-scale solar projects like Solar Star was completed in 2015. There was little resistance. The projects were mostly located in rural areas like the California desert. As the sector expands and plans for larger projects, tensions mount as it reaches out to more rural locations that are not familiar with solar.
With government and corporate support, the industry is rapidly expanding. The board oversees land use on farms and residential neighborhoods. Many times, they operate in politically conservative locations where residents are less concerned with climate change and are more willing to support fossil-fuel industries.
The protests of these people are compelling. According to a Wood Mackenzie analysis, more than 1.7 gigawatts worth of solar potential was canceled at the permit stage in 2021. That’s equivalent to a tenth of the 17 gigawatts of utility-scale solar capacity installed in the United States last year. Wood Mackenzie has not kept track of data regarding permitting for the years prior to 2021.
These numbers do not include the possible projects that may have been hampered by restrictions on solar application or moratoria. An analysis by Columbia Law School last year found 103 localities nationwide that have adopted policies to block or restrict renewable energy development – a list the report said is not exhaustive.
American Clean Power Association (an industry trade association) stated in a statement, that protests pose a significant challenge for the solar industry, and could threaten its ability to address climate change.
“Community concerns have made it harder for some developers to scale solar projects at the rate that science dictates that we need to,” said David Murray, ACP’s director of solar policy.
Site acquisition is at the top of the U.S. solar industry’s list of threats to growth. A poll conducted by LevelTen Energy last year found that 52% of developers said that permitting was one of the three biggest obstacles to reaching the country’s goals for solar energy. Nearly 20% also mentioned land availability. Access to transmission lines, supply chain disruptions and other challenges were also obstacles.
“It’s pretty obvious that, if there’s a climate urgency, we’re not behaving that way,” said Armond Cohen, executive director of environmental group Clean Air Task Force. “There’s this assumption that there’s so much solar and wind available at such low cost, it’s obviously going to get built… maybe it will, but something pretty serious is going to have to change.”
Carrie Brandon’s home sits near the proposed site for a 2,000-plus-acre solar farm that renewable-energy behemoth NextEra hopes to build at the border of Kansas’ Douglas and Johnson counties. Brandon was inspired to take action against the proposed 320-megawatt project when she found out about it. Brandon hired a consultant and sent out petitions to her neighbors. She also created a YouTube channel as well as a Facebook page under Kansans for Responsible Solar.
“That’s not what we signed up for,” Brandon said, noting that she and her husband built their dream home on 40 acres in Douglas County in 2018.
Brandon states that she is not against green energy, but feels solar projects should be built on former industrial sites and rooftops. Although she worries about her property’s value, she said that her most important concern was the safety and well-being of nearby residents. Her concern is that the herbicides used on the property to stop vegetation growing on solar panels could pollute groundwater and ponds. Her concern was also raised by the fact that solar panels could cause fires or other health issues due to their exposure to electromagnetic field radiation.
“It’s not about looking at it,” she said. “It’s about the health impacts.”
There is no evidence that solar panel use can increase fire danger or raise health risks, according to researchers.
Brandon met Mike Thompson from Kansas State, who is a Republican and has been criticised for misinforming the public about COVID-19 vaccinations’ safety as well as the science behind climate changes.
Why are all these renewable energy sources being used? Most people will answer that it’s because climate change must be addressed. And that is one of the biggest scams out there,” Thompson, a former TV weatherman who chairs the Senate’s utilities committee, said in a video on one of Brandon’s sites.
Thompson has not responded to my request for comment.
Brandon says she considers some of the contributions on her group’s Facebook page extreme but does not censor them. “I find opposing points of view to be stimulating conversation,” she said.
Johnson County is currently evaluating the impact of Brandon’s work as they draft zoning regulations for large solar farms. These rules could be crucial in determining the fate of NextEra. Initial plans were drawn by planning officials, which would have made solar facility leasing terms as restrictive as possible. They also set a cap on acreage at 1000 acres and limited lease terms to 20 years. However, a county board directed them to revise their plan next month.
NextEra’s project is designed to last 30 years, and the company has already leased more than 2,000 acres of land.
NextEra spokespeople did not address the controversy surrounding its plans.
Beth Snider is the leader of the Virginia solar protest group. She lives in Page County and uses Facebook to oppose solar development. Their focus is a 500-acre project in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley by Urban Grid, a unit of Canada’s Brookfield Renewable, one of the world’s top renewable energy asset owners. Snider is concerned about the impact on the environment as he lives close to the site.
Posts by her group’s more than 500 members include wide-ranging criticisms of all kinds of renewable energy. A post featured photos of Arizona’s solar panels that had been covered by snow, but were still producing electricity. One other post referred to a NoTricksZone climate-change skeptic blog that stated that German EV owners can’t afford to charge their cars due the rising electricity costs.
An overflow crowd was brought by the group to an earlier planning meeting. The four-member panel unanimously voted to reject the proposal by the County Board of Supervisors. It has one year to consider the application. 33 testimonies were against it. Urban Grid refused to comment.
However, in central Texas, officials from at least four counties have turned down tax incentives for solar developers, as well as school districts.
These projects could have produced millions of dollars in tax revenue for decades. Local officials, however, were convinced by arguments made by local residents on Facebook and in public meetings that the projects would undermine the region’s rural culture and create few jobs.
“They call themselves solar ‘farms,’ which is irritating to me,” Ron Pack, a landowner in Erath County, Texas, said in an interview. It seems like there’s a lot of bunny rabbits, butterflies. But it isn’t. 2.400 acres total of destruction.
Pack worries that soil erosion caused by NextEra’s 225-megawatt plant will pollute the Bosque River.
To ensure that the solar panels are unobstructed by sunlight, solar developers often have to clear trees or other vegetation. This can lead to soil erosion in certain cases.
NextEra has not responded to inquiries for comment. The company states on its website that no form of energy is completely free of environmental effects. However, solar energy, however, has the lowest impact because it doesn’t emit air pollution or water pollution.
NEW FRONT IN THE CULTURE WARS
Protests are a sign of declining national support for renewable energy.
Pew Research Center’s poll of Americans this year found that 69% supported developing alternative fuels to the fossil fuels. That is 79% less than two years ago. Respondents on the political right saw a drop in support for alternative energy development with only 43% (or those who are lean Republican) saying that they favor it, as opposed to 65% of 2020.
Joshua Fergen is a sociologe who studies rural attitudes towards renewable energy. He said that solar power has become a topic of U.S. culture warfare – an issue as divisive and politically charged as vaccine mandates, reform of police, or abortion.
“You can’t divorce what you see on these anti-renewable Facebook groups from the larger political context,” he said.
However, liberal-leaning residents have organized themselves against large-scale solar installation.
Alameda County is a stronghold in San Francisco Bay Democratic politics and has begun to consider more restrictive solar policies. This follows residents sue over the approval for a 100-megawatt plant in a rural valley. There were concerns over its environmental and visual impact.
To appease regulators and climate-conscious investors, local resistance could slow down utilities’ plans to replace aging coal plants with solar projects.
For example, the Northern Indiana Public Service Co. (NIPSCO) plans to eliminate more than 2 gigawatts in coal- and gas-fired generation and replace it with solar and wind. However, the 200-megawatt Boone County facility that it planned to launch this year was rejected by two local boards. The residents opposed it and decried the loss of farmland as well as rural culture.
NIPSCO stated to Reuters it is continuing efforts to make the project successful and that it remains optimistic about its larger clean-energy transition plan.
Developers have increased their offers for land available due to the difficulty in finding suitable sites for solar projects. According to Nathan Fabrick (executive vice president for solar at National Land Realty), a brokerage that specializes on rural land, the average price for solar developers has been around $1,000 per acre. This is far higher than what landowners might get from tenant farmers, which can be as high as $200 an acre.
“We get so many calls from landowners that are interested,” he said.
It’s a harder sell to communities as a whole, which often see little economic upside to offset the downsides of large installations, which often create only one or two full-time jobs.
Some areas have seen the solar industry make it more appealing to the general public. New Jersey, for instance, became a major market for solar despite the state’s dense development, primarily by putting projects on landfills or other disturbed land. Minnesota’s voluntary standards encourage planting pollinator-friendly plants at solar sites, in an effort to lessen environmental opposition. According to the DOE, such projects can help reduce local concern about solar farms.
The Land & Liberty Coalition – a pro-solar group backed by donors associated with the political left, such as the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and MacArthur Foundation – is also trying to improve the solar industry’s chances by appealing to libertarian values. For example, the coalition believes private landowners should have full access to developers and be allowed to make deals.
“Nobody ought to tell you, within reason of course, what you can and can’t do with your land,” said Tyler Duvelius, a spokesperson for the coalition.
He said that the group had set up satellite offices across several states in which solar battles are still raging.
Landowners like Robert and Donna Knoche agree with the Land & Liberty Coalition’s arguments. The couple has an agreement with NextEra for its Johnson County project in Kansas to lease hundreds of acres that have been in the family for generations, and they are hoping their neighbors don’t ruin their opportunity to make some money from it.
“Our six children, none of them are farmers,” Robert Knoche, 94, said in an interview. “They’d probably get along better with NextEra than they would farming it.”