Linda Poon is a staff writer at CityLab covering science and urban technology, including smart cities and climate change. She previously covered global health and development for NPR’s Goats and Soda blog.
While the American public broadly favors expanding renewable energy, that support doesn’t always extend to the photovoltaic panels next door.
Fawn Lake, a gated community in rural Spotsylvania County, Virginia, boasts expansive single-family homes with big yards and a nearby country club with an 18-hole Arnold Palmer Signature golf course. It’s a picturesque enclave, surrounded by sparkling lakes and rolling green fields that were once Civil War battlegrounds.
Soon, Fawn Lake will have a new neighbor: a 500 MW solar power plant, with an array of 1.8 million panels. In April, the Utah-based solar company S-Power won approval from the county board of advisors to build the largest section of its plant on part of the 6,350 acres of logging land adjoining the cul-de-sacs of Fawn Lake. And many residents aren’t happy about it.
The Facebook group Concerned Citizens of Spotsylvania County, which includes 831 members, lays out in detail nine arguments against S-Power’s project. Not only will the facility destroy “greenhouse gas-reducing” forest lands, they cite fire risks, negative health effects from the burning of trees during construction, and damage to Spotsylvania’s historic character (and their own home values). But their main critique is simple: The project is just too big. The 10-square mile facility would be the fifth-largest solar plant in the U.S., and the largest on the East Coast.
“That’s not a ‘farm,’” the website states. “Its [sic] a massive industrial-scale power plant complex.” (Emphasis theirs.)
Such resistance is neither new or unusual: Ever since Ronald Reagan tossed Jimmy Carter’s White House solar panels in the trash, Americans have disagreed about this polarizing energy-generating infrastructure. And as the renewable energy market expands, so do opportunities for “solar NIMBYism.” The U.S. now has a total of 2 million solar panels—half of which were installed in just the last three years—capable of generating nearly 70 gigawatts. That’s enough to power 13 million homes, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association, which expects total photovoltaic capacity to double over the next five years.
We’ll need a whole lot more, if we are serious about avoiding the most catastrophic impacts from climate disruption. A host of cities in the U.S. and beyond have committed to hitting ambitious renewable energy targets. But while the American public increasingly supports expanding green energy, they often don’t want to see the actual facilities that would generate that power.
In 2018, residents of the town of Grand Island near Niagara Falls in upstate New York fiercely opposed a solar farm currently under construction on 42 acres of undeveloped land nearby. On the West Coast, San Bernardino county residents vehemently reject large-scale solar projects in the region’s massive plots of desert. Similar battles are playing out in Eaton County, Michigan; in Anderson, Indiana; and near Madison, Wisconsin, to name a few.
Other “not in my backyard” pushback comes from literal backyards: Unhappy neighbors and homeowners associations have blocked homeowners from installing solar panels on rooftops and in yards, deploying familiar-sounding complaints about “neighborhood character” (also: glare). In October, for example, Washington, D.C.’s Historic Preservation Review Board rejected efforts to allow owners of historic homes to install solar panels on the front-facing rooftops of historic homes. “I just have this vision of a row of houses with solar panels on the front of them and it just—it upsets me,” said one board member, according to Greater Greater Washington. Only recently did that board loosen its guidelines to allow non-visible solar panels “if it is necessary.”
“Some of it is rational,” says John Farrell, director of the Energy Democracy Initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, a nonprofit that promotes local-level sustainability initiatives. “People get really concerned about their neighborhoods changing in ways they’re not familiar with.”
The anti-solar complaints go beyond aesthetics. Critics often raise environmental concerns, objecting to the disruption of wildlife habitats or migratory paths, or dangers to birds from collisions or the extreme heat that concentrated solar power facilities can generate. (As Audubon notes, there are ways to mitigate these ill effects, and the overall benefits of transitioning to renewable power far outweighs the dangers.) In many cases, development itself is the trigger, as residents fear the threat of a free-for-all land grabs by energy corporations.
Politics plays a role, too. New research shows that residential solar installations enjoy fairly bipartisan support from both Democratic and Republican homeowners, “despite extreme ideological polarization around climate change,” the authors wrote. That context was clear in Spotsylvania, which heated up after conservative Fox News host Sean Hannity picked up the story, labeling the solar project as part of the “the globalist, green and liberal agenda in Virginia.” This summer, a group called Citizens for Responsible Solar, founded by the Republican political consultant Susan Ralston, announced plans to help residents across the U.S. fight solar projects after successfully defeating a proposed 1,600-acre plant in its hometown of Culpepper County, Virginia, according to E&E News.
Fossil fuel lobbyists, meanwhile, have thrown money at utility companies and local politicians to fight renewable energy. Whether they also fund informal local anti-solar groups is harder to track. As Dave Anderson at the Energy and Policy Institute told E&E News, such groups rarely disclose funders and quickly disband after a government decision is made.
All that explains why researchers like Juliet Carlisle, a environmental politics professor at the University of Utah, who studies public attitude toward energy developments, have backed away from the term “NIMBY” when discussing community resistance to renewable energy. “It’s used as a pejorative, mostly because it’s seen as a selfish reaction to developments,” she says. “But people like me who study this say the opposition is a lot more complex.”
Sometimes, unfamiliarity fuels community resistance. “Part of it is not understanding that solar technology is pretty benign; there are no moving parts,” Farrell says. “It’s pretty quiet, and the sun doesn’t really bounce off the panels—the goal is to absorb it.” (It’s worth noting that the “solar heat island effect”—in which large-scale desert facilities increase local temperatures—is grounded in sound science, though researchers say it’s not well-studied enough to be used against developments.)
Meanwhile, the benefits are plenty, supporters say, and not only because they help communities meet greenhouse gas goals: They’re also a boon for the local economy, by generating tax revenue and creating construction jobs. In particular, community solar projects—which are either jointly owned by residents or owned by a third party but supply power to the residents—can lower power bills for locals and build community resilience.
Both Farrell and Carlisle say solar developers and local politicians need to talk to the community about what they want before a proposal is made. “Trust matters,” Carlisle says. “[You want] the sense that [residents] are being involved in the process, that developers are making sound decisions and taking into consideration local sentiments and opinions, and perception and fears.”
Opposition is always strongest during the planning phase, and tends to fade after a facility is actually built, she adds. But when projects get derailed by community resistance, the fight can have lasting and wide-ranging impacts. Objections to a 400-acre solar farm in Rowan County, North Carolina, for example, led developers to withdraw their application; county commissioners then enacted a six-month moratorium on future solar projects. In San Bernardino, the county board of advisors voted to ban large, non-community renewable energy projects on one million acres of unincorporated private land owned by the county.
So what should a prospective solar developer know before pursuing a project? Carlisle’s research found that residents want buffer zones between them and proposed facilities. They prefer a one- to five-mile distance between solar farms and residential, cultural, and recreation areas, and at least an 11-mile buffer between facilities and wildlife breeding grounds.
They also want transparency about the true pros and cons of solar infrastructure. “Talk about some of the things that are somewhat unpleasant,” Farrell says. “We know that some material that go into the panels and batteries isn’t totally [environmentally] benign. That’s true for any energy system, but taken in the whole, a clean energy system is going to help us solve climate change—and that’s probably more important than a hope that we’ll ever have a perfect way.”