Why Solar Parks Are in Desperate Need of Good Publicity

Americans have much to gain from having a solar project installed in their local community, but their relationship with solar energy is hardly a love affair. The infamous NIMBY (not in my backyard) phenomenon continues to cause many local solar projects to stall for months, sometimes even years, or worse, be scrapped altogether.

Yet, that shouldn’t be the case. The sun freely offers its energy to all Americans without discrimination. It never decides to hike up the cost of its power by limiting supplies. It will never retaliate against Americans because they did something it did not like. The sun is not only dependable, but it is also sustainable. There are no carbon emissions with solar. Finally, there is no “peak solar,” because we can count on solar energy to be around for a few billion years more.

Unloved Solar Energy

You’d think the many advantages of solar energy would make it popular, but reality shows a very different picture. On the ground, we see a growing number of projects incur delays because of local opposition from a minority of citizens. Most of the time, the objections pertain to the parks’ visual impact on the neighborhood. Other sources of contention pertain to completely unfounded worries about, among other things, chemical pollution and disappearing farmland (more about that later). The ones who oppose the projects make their voices loudly heard. Unfortunately, the majority who are for them, rarely step up to take a stake in the matter.

The communities who oppose solar miss out on substantial tax revenue—revenue that they could put toward community improvements such as schools, public parks, or other infrastructure enhancements. Local communities that reject solar also lose out because when projects are pushed to remote areas, this adds considerably to interconnection costs. Those costs are continuously passed through to ratepayers. Also, a chance to build and maintain a more resilient and reliable grid is missed by putting the projects at a considerable distance from the end-users. Shorter transportation routes will, by definition, always present less risk of adverse weather interfering with supply. In addition, the closer the energy source is to the end user, the less likely outages become.

A Need for Education

The discrepancy between the value offered by solar parks, and the perceived costs and benefits puts us in a predicament. Even in a new and fast-growing industry, we now find ourselves in urgent need of awareness campaigns that inform people in an unbiased manner. “Unbiased” means in this context that these campaigns should also speak transparently about the harmful impact parks will have on some. There is no use denying that when you live close to a solar project, your visual surroundings change. The problem is, however, that this negative impact is greatly exaggerated and misunderstood by people.

Next to exaggerated issues with solar panels, there are also plenty of myths surrounding solar parks that have no ground in reality. For example, some believe solar panels leak harmful chemicals into groundwater. We also sometimes hear that solar panels are noisy, whereas these projects are no louder than a commercial heating, ventilation, and air conditioning unit.

Another concern is that solar parks compete with food production and we will soon run out of farmland because of them. There are almost 900 million acres of agricultural land and only 1.5 million total acres (much of this not farmland) required for solar over the next decade. The math just doesn’t add up.

The myths around solar panels should not be the object of ridicule but should be treated with seriousness because they have severe consequences for the fate of solar parks. The misconceptions must be debunked, replacing falsehoods with factually correct information. Unlike the exaggerated issues, there is no room for a two-sided argument.

Support for Local Governments

While awareness campaigns should run at the local level, the federal government can provide help by offering local governments a framework containing key facts and figures, infographics, and multimedia content that can help local policymakers communicate efficiently with their constituents. One cannot expect small New Mexico, Florida, or Texas towns to run award-winning public relations campaigns for solar energy with their limited resources, so let’s give them content they can localize and get to work within their local communities.

Solar energy developers need to work closely with local governments to support them in their efforts. As long as they do not receive help from the federal (or possibly state) government, we need to provide them with the arguments they can use vis-a-vis their constituents.

The Inflation Reduction Act has allocated no less than $11.6 billion for funding technology to improve our power grid’s resilience, reliability, and flexibility. The commitment of our policymakers to renewable energy is commendable. Still, results on the ground will never be on par with policymakers’ good intentions if Americans cannot be made to accept solar projects in their local communities. Local communities have everything to gain with dependable and sustainable solar energy. Let’s make our case and get them on board.

Nathan Fabrick is executive vice president at NLR Solar.

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