Growing Pains
Solar Hits Its NIMBY Wall

Solar energy is the darling of the modern environmental movement, but it’s about to run into the same big problem that any major energy source has to contend with: local opposition, or as it’s better known, the Not-In-My-Back-Yard (NIMBY) phenomenon. The WSJ reports:

[L]arge solar installations don’t always sit well with local communities where they are planned. […]

The pressure in rural areas stems, in part, from simple economics. Some farmers are installing solar panels on a patch of their land to help offset energy costs. Other farmers are renting out entire fields to solar companies that can afford to pay premium prices for access to clear fields that don’t require much work or money to prepare it for a solar project. […]

In Connecticut, a state senator has proposed a bill that would discourage the use of farmland for solar projects. Counties in North Carolina and Washington have already imposed temporary restrictions on large solar projects, citing concerns about loss of farmland and the impact on rural character. Massachusetts, meanwhile, is putting in place incentives to try to steer solar projects to rooftops and brownfields, which are contaminated sites that were previously developed.

This hasn’t been a major problem for solar just yet because, despite environmentalists’ constant trumpeting about the rapid growth of the industry, solar still makes up less than 1 percent of American electricity generation. With that little deployment, finding suitable sites for solar farms hasn’t been especially challenging. Solar also has a leg up on other energy source like natural gas, coal, nuclear, or even wind: it can be installed on top of buildings built for other purposes, again alleviating siting concerns.

But as solar attempts to scale in the fashion it will need to in order to actually start competing with other power sources (both fossil fuels and renewables), these NIMBY concerns and land use conflicts are necessarily becoming a greater concern.

Greens have been heavily critical of shale drilling because of its impact on local communities, but solar power isn’t immune to these concerns. Fracking firms have navigated NIMBY opposition by handsomely compensating landowners for the right to drill on their property, and if solar wants to really capitalize on the momentum it’s been building in recent years, it’s going to have to do the same thing.

For solar to grow past its current niche status in the national energy mix, it’s going to have to address this problem head-on.

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