Did Woodland, North Carolina really ban solar farms because they "suck up the sun?"
Of course we had to run the story about how the Brave North Carolina town fights back against sun-sucking solar panels with the hilarious quotes from the retired teacher who worried that solar panels suck up the sun and kill photosynthesis and cause cancer. I was careful also to note the local concerns that "Solar panels are now taking up the majority of the farm land, jobs are disappearing and it is becoming a ghost town because younger local residents have to move away to find employment." But nobody reads that far.
David Roberts of Vox goes a lot deeper into the story and finds that Woodland, North Carolina is in deep economic trouble. The solar farmers don't pay taxes or support the community like real farmers used to. Roberts writes:
It's easy to mock goofy and irrational of fears about solar farms, but they are only an expression of deeper anxieties. The land that Woodland is being asked to rezone is currently zoned residential and agricultural. Rezoning it to allow solar panels amounts to admitting that it's currently going to waste. People aren't going to be living or farming there. The town is not going to grow — not now, not any time soon.
Roberts also notes that there are ways to engage and involve the community in renewable power; In Germany, half of it is owned by citizen cooperatives, not big energy corporations like Strata, the frustrated applicant in this case. He wonders:
What if Strata, as part of its proposal for another solar farm outside of Woodland, had pledged to power Woodland itself with cheap solar power? What if it had pledged to train and employ Woodland residents to maintain and manage the solar farms? What if it had offered citizens of Woodland the chance to purchase a small ownership stake in the farm? Any of these benefit-sharing initiatives could have muted, if not eliminated, the opposition to solar farms in Woodland. And they would have been cheaper for Strata — certainly cheaper than not getting to build on this prime piece of land at all.
In the Guardian, the Mayor of Woodland complains how the issue has been blown out of proportion by the international media.
“We’ve just been inundated, as you could imagine,” Manuel told the Guardian. “We want to set the record straight. Some folks have got it really twisted. They didn’t care about what the truth was; they wanted to super-sensationalize it, as folks will do.”... “We want to attract more businesses,” Manuel said. “We support solar farms and clean energy – clearly, that’s indicative – given that we already have three solar farms approved. We’d also like to attract other businesses like a supermarket or some kind of shopping center to buy clothing.”
The mayor also published a response on the town website, noting that there were already three approved solar farms:
The town council's decision to deny the rezoning of this fourth proposed solar farm site was due, in part, to a circulated petition by a group of concerned town citizens opposing the change of zoning for this fourth site. The citizens opposed the site location, because to grant the zoning request would create a situation in which the town would be completely surrounded by solar farms.
However Max Blau of the Guardian notes that there really is crazy opposition to solar farms.
Around the state, Strata’s O’Hara said, the company has seen an uptick in efforts to undermine the spread of solar from politicians, lobbyists and organizations. More recently, as the company has made bids to build solar farms, more residents looking to curb clean energy have taken stands based on flawed arguments and falsehoods. That’s become a source of frustration for a company trying to lessen a coal-reliant state’s dependency on non-renewable energy sources. “The more opponents of renewable energy spread misinformation, the more it opens the door for comments like this,” O’Hara says. “These folks had questions, and they were what they were, probably because they have heard that misinformation before.”
This is not the first solar farm that Strata has had trouble with, but usually the opposition is from wealthy people worried about property values. Perhaps that's why economically depressed Woodland looked like such a good site. And while David Roberts is correct in his conclusion:
But mock or don't mock, the important thing is to understand. It's not kooky beliefs driving Woodland's opposition to solar farms, it's the entirely valid perception that they are getting nothing out of the industrialization of their land — that, at least for now, renewable energy is just one more face of a contemporary world that has devalued and forgotten them.
The kooky beliefs, the misinformation, the opposition to anything that weans us off fossil fuels, they exist in North Carolina. You can see it in the related links, and in a recent report from Environment North Carolina, Blocking the Sun.