Nontraditional alliances are forming to defeat local projects
I had coffee with my landlord—Mark— the other day. He asked me about an article in the Washington Post (WaPo). The piece was about environmental advocates opposing the site of a solar farm that is to provide Georgetown University with up to half its electric needs. He was surprised by the conflict and said he naturally assumed that solar energy developers and enviros are hand in glove with each other.
Mark asked if such conflicts happened often? More often than one would imagine, I replied. As to the “hand-in-glove” remark, I said something about it being true in a sense—if the gloves were for boxing and each side had a pair.
I think Mark’s assumption, that things are all good between solar developers and the environmental community is typical of most people’s understanding of the relationship between clean energy project developers and the environmental community. More to the point I don’t think enough attention is being paid to these kinds of local conflicts by big-picture thinkers in Washington.
Such conflicts promise to slow the transition to a low-carbon economy. Whether Green New Dealers or carbon taxers no allowance seems to be made for opposition to the projects needed to get the US off the fossil fuel standard. The parties to the conflicts are not just climate defenders and deniers.
In many of the cases, property owners populate the denier ranks—not over climate change but property values. In still other cases there are environmentalists on both sides of the issue and conservationists on the opposing side wanting to stem the loss of agricultural lands.
Then there are the farmers, who may or may not believe in climate change, but see the revenues from land sales or lease payments from solar and wind farm developers as a way to earn substantial income whatever the weather.
These conflicts don’t necessarily stay local. They can be weaponized to widen the partisan divide by denier organizations like the Heritage Foundation and supported by the Koch Brothers. In a number of these cases, the opposition is successful not because they represent the majority opinion but because of volume and more aggressive organization.
What’s it all about?
The Georgetown project involves a 537-acre tract of land in Charles County, Maryland, which is about 30 miles outside the District of Columbia. The solar developer, Origis Energy, is proposing to chop around 210 acres of trees to make room for the panels and remove any obstructions to sunlight. According to the WaPo article: if the solar farm is built, 32 “specimen trees,” which are more than 30 inches in diameter, will remain in place, while 17 others of that size will be cut down. The project will also impact wetlands and bird populations, including bald eagles, warblers, eastern whip-poor-wills, and wood thrushes, according to the Maryland Audubon Society.
Origis is hoping to start construction this summer but is still awaiting final approvals from the county and state. Moreover, the sale of the land to Origis for $1.3 million is not yet final. The “pending” nature of the project suggests that the opposition holds the high ground—at least for the moment. There appears not to be a contingency Plan B, i.e., an alternative site(s), should either the county or the state refuse to issue the needed permits.
A proposed 500-megawatt solar farm on 6,300 acres in Spotsylvania County, Virginia is also encountering resistance from residents and local environmentalists for many of the same reasons, e.g., lower value of properties abutting the project, as the Charles County project. The 1.8 million panel project, if approved, would be the largest solar farm on the East Coast, the 5th largest in the US, and the 12th largest in the world.
The project was initially green-lighted in August 2018 by the State Corporate Commission (SCC). However, the County’s Planning Commission recently voted against all but a small portion, i.e., 30-megawatts, of the project. The final decision could be made by the Spotsylvania, County Board of Supervisors possibly as early as March 12th, which is the Board’s next scheduled meeting date.
Opponents have highlighted the potential leakage into water supplies of the cadmium telluride contained in the solar panels. The weight of the black crystalline powder is estimated at 100,000 pounds. Citation of cadmium telluride as a significant environmental hazard, as I will discuss a bit further on, appears to be cozening by outside denialist organizations rather than a legitimate threat.
The project developer, sPower, has commitments from Microsoft, Apple, and the University of Richmond to purchase power from the project. sPower is the largest private owner of operating solar assets in the United States. The company owns and operates a portfolio of solar and wind assets greater than 1.3 GW and has a development pipeline of more than 10 GW.
If a poll commissioned by sPower is any indication, a decision to block the project runs counter to the positive opinion of county residents. Public Opinion Strategies was commissioned by the developer to survey Spotsylvania residents. Nearly half of the 400 respondents said they strongly support a 500-megawatt solar farm in the western part of the county. Eighteen (18) percent supported the project but not strongly, while 26 percent indicated they would oppose the project, and 7 percent offered no opinion.
In California, opponents have prevailed upon the San Bernardino Board of Supervisors to adopt a policy prohibiting utility-scale projects in certain areas of the county. The policy approved by the supervisors prohibits utility-oriented renewable energy projects — defined as projects that would mostly serve out-of-town utility customers, rather than local power needs — within the boundaries of Community Plans that have been adopted by more than a dozen unincorporated towns.
Roughly the size of West Virginia, San Bernardino County has vast stretches of thinly populated desert lands ready-made for utility-scale solar projects like Ivanpah and the proposed Ord Mountain solar farm and Calcite substation.
There are at least 35 official wilderness areas in San Bernardino County that are part of the National Wilderness Preservation System. It is the largest number of areas of any county in the United States (although not the largest in total area).
When county restrictions are added to the rules governing construction/installation of energy facilities on federal lands, the County’s 20,000 square miles become a lot smaller and less hospitable to solar and wind projects. The reasons cited by San Bernardino opponents parallel those in Virginia and Maryland—interference with the wildlife feeding and migratory patterns, declining property values, water quality and quantity, and aesthetics. In the case of desert projects, there are the environmental consequences of breaking up fragile desert lands and health risks, e.g., respiratory problems, associated with blowing sands.
Solar projects are not the only ones facing opposition from environmentalists and concerned residents. Wind farms around the country also must contend with opposition from community and environmental groups. Cape Wind has been fighting environmentalists and property owners on Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard, and Nantucket for more than a decade. Today a coalition of environmental groups, indigenous people, lawmakers, fishermen, and private businesses – many of which successfully opposed Cape Wind’s efforts – have again banded together to have the waters of Nantucket Sound declared a National Historic Landmark and, therefore, closed to wind developers.
A project in Bismarck, North Dakota has been hit head-on by opponents to a proposed 300-megawatt wind farm. The developer, Chicago-based Pure New Energy USA, recently filed an appeal in the South Central Judicial District Court challenging Burleigh County Commission’s decision to deny needed special use permits. The project of about 70 wind turbines would cover 15,000 acres.
As reported by the Bismarck Tribune, the Commission’s decision followed a December public hearing in which opponents to the project spoke of its potential negative impacts, e.g., interference with wildlife, proximity to the Bismarck airport, and property rights. Proponents of the project emphasized the economic benefits of the proposed project, including jobs and tax revenues, to support the local school district.
NIMBY and whose side are you on anyway?
Opposition to solar and wind farms at the local level is making for some non-traditional alliances and surprising divisions within the ranks of environmental defenders. Siting projects in the real world means coming up against NIMBY (not in my backyard) barriers as seen in the several projects that already discussed. Opposition to the projects can be strong enough to trump the considerable projected economic benefits that would accrue to the host communities.
According to a representative of Pure New Energy, the proposed North Dakota wind farm’s estimated economic impacts include a $13 million one-time state sales tax, annual property tax revenues of $1.1 million, landowner payments of more than $1 million per year and $400,000 annually to the Hazelton-Moffit-Braddock School District.
In addition to cash contributions to the community, the project is expected to provide up to 300 temporary construction jobs along with ten permanent positions once the project is up and running. These are consequential contributions to rural Burleigh County with a population of around 95,000 and a median income of $53,465.
The projected economic impact of the Spotsylvania project includes a $600 million investment in the County, $10 million in total tax revenues over the life of the project, 700 temporary construction jobs, 20 to 25 permanent positions when the project is operational. Moreover, the project developer will provide rooftop or ground-mount solar facilities for the exclusive benefit and use of the County schools and buildings at a cost of up to $1 million to be matched by a solar partner and overall benefit to the County of over $35 million in electricity cost savings.
It should be noted that land requirements for various wind and solar farms often go beyond the project’s boundaries. The Ord Mountain project, for example, requires the construction of a substation and obtaining rights of way for new transmission/connection lines.
It is not that the opposers in these communities are necessarily against clean energy or climate denialists. NIMBY forces appear to be a mixture of property owners fearful that the value of their lands will be diminished or simply irritated over having their vistas blocked, and environmentalists/conservationists worried about the loss of animal habitats, plant species, forest, and farmlands.
The counterparts to fearful property owners are those whose property would provide them with substantial annual income. In Burleigh County, for example, the wind project is paying between $15,000 to $20,000 per wind tower per year.
On average rents paid by solar developers to farmers is somewhere between $21,250 and $42,500 a year, according to Landmark Dividend. The acreage required per MW ranges between four and eight acres depending on the type of PV panel, e.g., crystalline or thin-film. For farmers—especially small and medium family farms—solar rents can be a big leveler of their incomes. Farming is hard enough when the weather is good, with climate change risks, e.g., droughts, heat, insect infestations risks rise higher.
What is good news for a farmer whose land is in demand by solar and wind developers is not necessarily good from either an environmental or agricultural perspective. Wind and solar projects big and small will impact animal and plant life. The Georgetown University project in Charles County Maryland requires cutting over 200 acres of trees, dozens of which are considered specimen.
Climate hawks also worry about the loss of prime agricultural lands. Again, global warming is putting pressure on the ability of farms to supply enough food to sustain human life. The Oregon legislature is considering a bill (House Bill 2329) that would expedite the approval process for solar projects. Renewable energy advocates are understandably in favor of the legislation.
The proposal is opposed by The 1,000 Friends of Oregon, a farmland conservation group, because they fear counties won’t sufficiently examine impacts to water quality and quantity, cultural resources and wildlife habitat, particularly since HB 2329 doesn’t provide them with funding for such undertakings.
At times in the solar and wind cases, local environmental/conservation groups may end up at odds with their nationals. The Ivanpah project proved to be a major battleground between the Sierra Club’s national office and its local chapter. In the end, the national quashed local chapters’ opposition to some solar projects with a 42-page directive—with mixed results. The local San Bernardino chapter changed its name and went on opposing the project.
The break-up incident occurred in 2012 after which Ivanpah’s six square miles of reflectors went on to be approved and constructed. The fight between local conservationists and large-scale solar developers didn’t end there, however. It ended—if indeed it has ended—just weeks ago when the San Bernardino Board of Supervisors voted to prohibit utility-oriented renewable energy projects.
Local opposition to solar and wind farms is creating non-traditional alliances. An NRDC attorney involved in the Ivanpah battle summed what may be a new reality:
I have spent my entire career thinking of myself as an advocate on behalf of public lands and acting for their protection…I am now helping facilitate an activity on public lands that will have very significant environmental impacts. We are doing it because of the threat of climate change. It's not an accommodation; it's a change I had to make to respond to climate.
Local projects are also attracting the interest and resources of national climate denier organizations. In the Spotsylvania case, Concerned Citizens of Spotsylvania County, an opposer of the 500-megawatt solar farm project, has claimed that the solar panels contain cadmium telluride that could leak out and contaminate groundwater supplies.
The claim is a lie. Cadmium telluride is a non-soluble black crystalline powder. The Spotsylvania group is apparently repeating information it has received from climate-denying organizations supported by the Koch Brothers.
The projects I’ve discussed are only the tip of the problem. If the US is ever to get off the fossil fuel standard hundreds more solar and wind projects like those described are going to have to come online. It is folly to think that these projects will be welcomed everywhere they are proposed.
Consider as a final thought, how will California meet its targets of 60 percent of electricity from renewable by 2030 and 100 percent by 2045 if developers are kept out of San Bernardino County? What of the cities around the country that have made similar commitments?
I’m not saying the future is doomed because of resistance at the local level. I am suggesting there is the need to anticipate these types of problems and for the renewable energy industry, community leaders, policymakers, politicians, farmers, and others to start addressing these issues now—hopefully together.
Lead image: BrightSource-one of the three Ivanpah towers.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
Joel B. Stronberg
Joel Stronberg, MA, JD., of The JBS Group is a veteran clean energy policy analyst with over 30 years’ experience, based in Washington, DC.