Locals Worry Wind and Solar Will Gobble Up Forests and Farms
by Alex Brown, PEW Stateline, April 30, 2021
Massachusetts has installed solar panels faster than almost any other state as it seeks to reduce its carbon emissions. But some activists say the state’s transition to renewable energy has come at a cost.
“We have big multinational solar companies coming and cutting down forests,” said Jane Winn, executive director of the Berkshire Environmental Action Team, a nonprofit in the state. “They're not doing a good job of it, so they're allowing erosion into wetlands. We're trying to connect our forests so wildlife can move, and they're in there fragmenting it.”
Similar conflicts are cropping up across the country, as the fast-growing wind and solar industries expand into new areas, driven in some cases by state mandates and incentives. In many places, locals are pushing back, saying that forests and farmlands should not be sacrificed in the fight against climate change.
Local activists say they support clean energy, but they want state regulators to be more thoughtful about where to allow development. The activists would like to see more solar projects on rooftops and previously developed sites such as parking lots and landfills.
But some industry leaders say large, ground-mounted projects are much more cost-effective, and the only realistic way for states to transition away from fossil fuels. They say “not in my backyard” attitudes threaten to stall important climate work.
Some state regulators have begun rethinking their wind and solar strategies to push projects away from undeveloped areas. But they acknowledge more conflicts are inevitable as the industry grows, and many states still lack a clear picture of the land use that will be required to meet their renewable energy goals.
In Massachusetts, 150,000 acres could be lost to renewable energy development as the state seeks to meet its climate targets, according to a 2020 report from Mass Audubon, a conservation nonprofit. Between 2012 and 2017, the group found that solar projects accounted for a quarter of the natural lands that were converted to development. In response to those concerns, Massachusetts leaders are seeking to reduce state incentives for building solar projects on ecologically sensitive lands.
“We have evolved to try to target areas that have the most benefits from an environmental land use perspective and also from a clean energy perspective,” said Patrick Woodcock, commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources. “We want to promote solar that doesn't impair ecosystems and require tree-clearing. We're starting to see that our land use is also part of [carbon] sequestration, and a vibrant forest ecosystem is a big component of that.”
Local advocates and state leaders are hoping to see more solar development on rooftops, parking lots and landfills, which they contend also will benefit local solar installers instead of large corporations.
But some in the solar industry say the state’s approach is misguided, and its efforts to protect forests could hinder its renewable energy ambitions.
“Over the next few years in Massachusetts, the amount of solar installed in the state is going to drop off a cliff,” said Ilan Gutherz, vice president of policy and strategy with Borrego Solar Systems, which develops and maintains solar projects in 26 states including Massachusetts. “There's almost no remaining land area in the state where we could reasonably site projects.”
Similarly, wind farms nationwide have long drawn some opposition for killing birds and bats and altering landscape views. As more projects spring up, regulators say it will be increasingly difficult to analyze and mitigate their collective impact on endangered species.
The growth in renewable energy projects also will require massive amounts of copper and other resources, even as environmental groups oppose mining proposals throughout the country.
‘It Becomes Very Challenging’
In Hawaii, some renewable energy proposals have drawn criticism and protests from locals who feel the projects will disrupt fragile ecosystems or damage sites that are culturally important to Native Hawaiians.
According to Lance Collins, a lawyer who has fought several proposals on behalf of community groups, many renewable energy projects in Hawaii don’t comply with the state’s environmental protection laws.
“Unfortunately, because of the need for renewable energy, state agencies feel like they need to do whatever these companies want, because they have the money and they can make it happen,” he said. “It seems pretty clear that there's a strong preference for approving these projects as quickly as possible, and that seems to override other things that are supposed to be considered.”
State officials say they have not bent the rules to accommodate clean energy projects, but they acknowledge that the state’s goal of reaching 100% renewable energy by 2045 will raise difficult questions.
“If we want to go to 100% renewable energy, what does that look like on the ground?” said David Smith, forestry and wildlife administrator with the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources. “How many acres of solar panels, how many wind turbines? It becomes very challenging.”
Smith’s agency has begun working with the Hawaii State Energy Office to address those concerns. Regulators are seeking a broad perspective on how the drive toward renewable energy will affect habitats and endangered species, rather than analyzing the impact project-by-project.
“We don't have the big picture right now of what an at-scale rollout would look like,” Smith said. “We don't want to get nickeled and dimed to death and then find we can’t get the permits out anymore before we get to 100% renewable.”
Meanwhile, Hawaiian Electric, the state’s largest electricity company, worries that protest movements could stall Hawaii’s efforts to build more wind and solar projects. Opponents have used demonstrations and litigation to try to block development proposals in the state. A detailed Honolulu Civil Beat story laid out the company’s and several state lawmakers’ concerns that the conflicts could derail the state’s climate goals.
“Developers often face community opposition when proposing a project, and we’ve learned over the years that community outreach early and often is critical,” Shannon Tangonan, Hawaiian Electric’s corporate communications manager, said in an email to Stateline.
“But when developers are transparent and willing to engage with community members, it often produces mutually beneficial adjustments to the project and other positive results.”
Tangonan noted that the company now has specific community outreach requirements for project proposals….
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IM: 100% Renewable Energy -- NIMBYism vs Corporate Ram-and-Jam