While the coronavirus recession has sapped demand for energy and put fracking companies on the ropes – with hundreds of bankruptcies declared so far – the renewables that would replace oil and coal are facing a growing challenge that will last long after the pandemic: The resistance of rural communities to mammoth solar or wind farms that can power cities.
From New York to California, local opposition is thwarting wind and solar projects seen as essential to transitioning from fossil fuels. Many opponents support renewable energy in theory and express concern about climate change. And many landowners have partnered with environmental groups to block or delay natural gas pipelines designed to run through their property.
But enough of them just can’t stomach the outsize “green” projects themselves – wind farms with 500-foot-tall turbines (around the height of the United Nations Secretariat Building) and solar spreads covering many square miles that forever change the idyllic look of rural communities and threaten pristine desert habitat.
The opposition has been brewing for years and now poses a threat to states with plans to rapidly accelerate the buildout to meet ambitious renewable energy goals by 2030. The backlash is powerful because it’s coming from across the political and economic spectrum, including professionals, environmentalists, farmers, activists and concerned parents.
“The opposition has become a serious impediment to New York meeting its clean energy goals,” says Michael Gerrard, a professor at Columbia Law School specializing in environmental and energy regulation.
A key problem is that while many governors have lofty targets – for example, Andrew Cuomo’s call for renewables to meet 70% of New York’s energy needs by 2030 – working out the nitty-gritty with power companies often falls to rural counties with little or no experience regulating complex industrial projects.
Local officials have to set new safety rules for developments with enormous footprints. A typical wind farm with 50 turbines might occupy 15,000 acres, or 23 square miles, which is many times the size of the world’s largest manufacturing plants. The proposed buildout of solar farms in Virginia could require 490 square miles of land (about the size of Los Angeles). Many counties and towns facing public opposition have responded with tough measures, imposing moratoriums or restrictions so onerous that they scare developers away.
Out-of-town developers have to win the trust of rural communities, a big challenge that some fail to meet. Utah-based sPower, which has built 158 utility-scale wind and solar projects in 13 states, first investigates a town’s sentiment toward renewable energy in local newspapers and in zoning laws. If that doesn’t raise red flags, the company quietly reaches out to a handful of big landowners to see if they would lease their land for a fee to host a turbine and become advocates for the project.
The hardest part is enlisting the support of those who don’t get lease payouts of thousands of dollars a year, before they join the opposition and derail the project. Like fossil fuel purveyors, renewable energy developers pitch a boost in tax revenues for schools and health services.
“What some developers have done well and some have done very poorly is getting in front of that opposition and controlling the messaging within the community,” says Jeffrey Nemeth, director of wind at sPower who was raised in rural Illinois. “I’m out there sitting at dining room tables or on a tractor talking with landowners. My most successful projects have been when I built relationships with them. I’m not just some guy from the city coming here to change their way of life.”
Even after developers devote years to public meetings and outreach, some folks can’t be swayed. They mostly complain that turbines are an eyesore and make too much noise. At a typical distance of about 1,000 feet from a home, they make about as much noise as a dishwasher that runs most of the day.
And some opponents are raising sensational claims about the noise to stop projects.
“It does cause health issues,” says Diane Fitch, a Madison County, Iowa, supervisor who’s pushing to ban turbines and likens them to cigarettes. “This is going to be the same. They’ll dispute this until we start dying.”
The resistance encountered by renewables in three states – New York, California and Michigan – illustrates the depth and breadth of obstacles clouding dreams of a carbon-free future.
New York: Tourists, Not Turbines
The five-year fight over Lighthouse Wind farm is among the longest disputes in upstate New York, where hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, has been banned since 2015.
Most residents of the small rural towns of Somerset and Yates first heard about Apex Clean Energy’s plan to install about 47 turbines – each one 591-feet tall – after the company quietly began cutting deals with landowners. They stood to earn a total of more than $1 million a year, according to Apex’s website, providing a boost for struggling farmers in the region.
At the first meeting between Apex and residents at a firehouse about five years ago, Jim Simon became incensed because the company had already developed a timeline and approximate location for the wind farm.
“I told the company representative, ‘You’re on step four, and this is the first time you have done anything public with our town. Don’t you feel that’s inappropriate?’’’ says Simon, associate dean at Genesee Community College. “It went downhill from there.”
Apex did not respond to a request for an interview.
Pam Atwater, a retired engineer and businesswoman, helped set up a nonprofit, Save Ontario Shores, to rally the opposition. Its website details the potential negative impact of the turbines on migratory birds and tourism and even names the landowners who signed confidential leases. “When you put in 47 turbines, it industrializes the community,” says Atwater. “But people come here for tourism and a lot of people have cottages that are rented along the lake.”
Simon, a Republican, and other opponents outmaneuvered Apex by running for office and completely taking over both town boards, which enacted tough zoning restrictions. Two years ago, Somerset passed a 200-foot-limit on the height on turbines that amounts to a ban. Clean energy advocates, who stressed the benefits of the estimated $1.5 million in annual tax revenues for schools and services, were outnumbered.
“We got to the point where two guys at a meeting said, ‘You want to step outside?’” says Simon, supervisor of Yates. “There were moments when it was very tense.”
Apex put Lighthouse Wind on pause and if it quits the project, it would be at least the 11th wind farm defeat in New York. That doesn’t bode well as the state aims to leap from 30% to 70% renewable energy in 10 years.
In response, the state government is working to sideline local officials. In April the legislature passed a law that creates a much quicker approval process for wind and solar projects and makes it easier for a new state office to overrule local zoning decisions.
“It’s important to listen to the [local] concerns and try to mitigate them,” says Anne Reynolds, executive director of the Alliance for Clean Energy New York, an Albany-based advocacy consortium of companies and environmental organizations. “But the great majority of New Yorkers support the clean energy goals and understand we have to have a place to put it.”
The law has reignited tensions upstate. Apex could use it to try to overturn the zoning restrictions in Somerset and Yates that are blocking Lighthouse Wind – a possibility that Simon considers an assault on local governments by Cuomo.
“The system is rigged, compliments of Governor Cuomo,” the supervisor says.
California: Solar’s Desert Storm
The sparsely populated, blazing hot California desert would seem to offer a way around such problems. Solar developers, fueled with federal incentives, pushed into the California desert over the last decades, aiming to build mega projects on the vast federal properties overseen by the Bureau of Land Management. BLM had as many as 80 applications to process at once in about 2010.
“It was like the gold rush,” says Jeremiah Karuzas, renewable energy program manager for BLM in California.
Big environmental groups cheered the buildout in the California desert – one of the best solar locations in the world. But Kevin Emmerich, a retired national park ranger who has lived in the Mojave since the early 1990s, witnessed firsthand a problem that has long thwarted fossil fuel projects: threats to wildlife.
Specifically, he saw how the projects were crushing tens of thousands of acres of pristine habitat for the threatened desert tortoise and other species just to send power to the Los Angeles area. His nonprofit group, Basin and Range Watch, spearheaded the opposition starting about a decade ago, providing research to pressure federal and local officials to reject projects in the desert.
Emmerich estimates that 70,000 acres of tortoise habitat in California have been destroyed, adding to the recent push for its listing as an endangered species. “There is huge potential to build solar on rooftops and degraded agricultural lands,” says Emmerich. “Why destroy pristine desert when you have many alternatives?”
Emmerich and other opponents helped delay and defeat about a dozen projects. All told, the bureau rejected about 93 solar developments between 2008 and 2016 in the desert for environmental and military concerns. It approved 24 solar and wind farms over the last decade, but only five solar installations are finished and operating on BLM land with three more on the way.
To speed up the rollout, BLM and state officials in 2016 put in place the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan. It identified 600-square-miles of federal land where projects would be fast-tracked, hundreds of additional square miles open to development, and set aside about 10,000-square-miles for conservation.
But rules to protect vegetation and habitat got in the way of fast-tracking and contributed to the plunge in applications to only two in 2017 before a more recent uptick. Karuzas says the bureau is now fixing the plan to give more flexibility to developers.
“The promise was that permitting would be a little easier,” says Shannon Eddy, executive director of the trade group Large-Scale Solar Association. “It’s much more difficult, and in a lot of cases, precludes development altogether.”
Developers who have sought refuge in private lands closer to small towns in San Bernadino County have faced strong pushback from residents concerned about dust storms and the use of scarce water by solar farms. The desert crust that binds soil – and absorbs carbon dioxide like a sponge – is disturbed when a solar farm is installed. Strong desert winds pick up the loosened sand and dirt, adding more particulate matter to the frequent dust storms that travel for miles and even stop traffic, says Neil Nadler, a commercial real estate developer and conservationist.
“A couple of times driving from Lucerne Valley to Joshua Tree I had to pull over because my car was going to get wiped out from the dust storm,” says Nadler.
Last year San Bernadino, the largest county in the contiguous U.S., sent a jolt through the industry by pushing off large developments to five remote areas and taking about a million acres out of play to protect communities. Los Angeles County has also choked off projects, leaving Kern and Riverside counties as friendlier destinations for developers.
Kern’s director of planning, Lorelei Oviatt, has turned her county into the top wind and solar producer in the state. Early on, she set clear rules on where projects can be sited – on land that’s not useable for agriculture or industry – and created a more efficient environmental review that developers appreciate.
But Oviatt says it’s “fantasy” to think that California can double its solar output to meet its target of 60% renewable energy by 2030 if other things don’t change. For one, counties need to generate more tax revenue from new solar projects, which are currently excluded from reassessments on land values.
“The easy land is gone,” she says. “The tolerance of local governments and local communities for hosting is gone. They are closing fire stations and libraries. If you are serious about 60%, you have to look at the impact of solar on local government revenue.”
Michigan: An Activist in Farm Country
The battle over a giant wind farm that tore up a farming community in Michigan came with an unusual twist. At public meetings in Lapeer County, a mother repeatedly made emotional appeals to officials to oppose the project because she said shadows from spinning blades could cause her special-needs child to have seizures.
DTE Energy, which had been responding to more typical concerns at public meetings for months, now had another fire to put out. The utility brought in neurologist Jeffrey Ellenbogen, an expert in potential health impacts of wind power, who tried to assure the mom and other folks at a public meeting last year that there’s no link between turbines and headaches, dizziness or seizures.
It didn’t work. A month later she galvanized the opposition to the 50-turbine wind farm at a packed gathering in a church, featuring a presentation by a prominent anti-wind power activist, Kevon Martis.
Martis is the bane of renewable energy developers in Michigan. The activist travels around the state and says he has made about 40 presentations at public meetings over the last decade. He dismisses wind power is a “high-cost and low-value” proposition that profits only a few landowners with leases.
“Natural gas is certainly cheaper than unsubsidized wind energy,” says Martis, who is “agnostic” on the issue of human-caused climate change. “My long-term solution is nuclear power.”
If officials need to be pressured, Martis tells opponents to use fear. “Your county commissioners will not be moved by facts. They will be moved by political fear,” he wrote on Facebook in December. “Your path to success must involve showing them that your group is a substantial portion of the electorate and that you are fired up and willing to do whatever it takes to stop this project.”
Opponents have been notching victories along the way. Ed Rivet, executive director of the Michigan Conservative Energy Forum, estimates that for every wind farm that gets approved in the state, another one is abandoned, with local opposition a significant factor.
That’s what happened in Lapeer County. While DTE had signed agreements with more than 600 landowners controlling 23,000 acres in its three-year campaign to win support, it couldn’t stop local officials from essentially killing the project through zoning changes that greatly reduced the available land. Michigan’s biggest utility pulled the plug in May.
“Regrettably, part of the opposition is not based on science and facts,” says Matt Wagner, manager of renewable energy development at DTE, which has abandoned three wind projects. “It has really made building wind in Michigan a challenge.”
Developer Rich Vander Veen has had success in Michigan using an economic approach that doesn’t divide towns into those who get lease payouts and those who don’t. For several wind farms, he offered all landowners with at least one acre a share of the project’s revenue, whether or not they host a turbine.
“We got zoning approval from the different townships, the project went up on time and on budget, and we never had any complaints,” says Vander Veen, the Michigan counsel at developer Savion. “We balanced the responsibilities between the developer and communities to help them achieve their goals, like keeping family farms for future generations.”
DTE and the Consumers Energy, the state’s other big utility, have set a goal of 25% renewable energy by 2030. To get there, DTE is shifting to solar farms, which are lower slung and less visible than turbines, and they don’t make noise. The falling price of solar power and the possibility of fewer community conflicts is behind the transition.
“There’s a pretty big shift to solar,” DTE’s Wagner says. “While solar is not without its challenges, some of them are much more manageable.”