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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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  • Unelected Leader

    Coming from a rural state I’ve found farmers have found it better to take government assistance and install a small wind turbine instead.
    It’s highly efficient anywhere on the planes and generates a lot of juice in a tiny package.
    If solar can become more cost-effective than it currently is and the technology continues to improve with things like window panes that are actually generating power, well that’s fantastic. However, it is simply not cost-effective yet even with the billions in subsidies.

    • Suzy Dixon

      Sure, putting little units in window panes and on roofs is fine, but the rest of it is just a sham. The “greens” are typically so ignorant they don’t even understand how much mining of base metals, precious metals and mineral for that matter is required to build solar units, or their iPhones or their electric cars.

  • Fat_Man

    “.. solar … going to have to address this problem head-on.”

    Well that and the nasty habit the sun has of setting every day.

    • Andrew Allison


  • CaliforniaStark

    Am reminded of the saying” “No farms, no food.” Preserving prime agricultural is not NIMBYism. Solar zealots are not talking about using a limited amount of land for solar, they want an area the size of the entire state of West Virginia — or about 2% of existing farmland.

    “To supply all of America’s electricity from the sun, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) estimates that solar installations would have to occupy about 0.6 percent of the country’s total land area. That’s equivalent to less than 2 percent of U.S. land now in crop production, but it’s still a big stretch of terrain, almost the size of West Virginia.”

    What makes this proposal even more inane is that land in agriculture or its natural state often consumes more CO2 than would be saved using the energy from the installed solar panels instead of fossil fuels. Plus, solar only getting energy eight hours a day, and then only when it is sunny. An operating wind turbine or oil or gas well is compatible with an operating farm; a large solar farm is not.

    • Tom

      That depends on whether the land in question is actually prime agricultural land. But yes, the greens aren’t interested in seeing to it that people are fed.

    • Fat_Man

      That number strikes me as being way to low. I don’t want to go back and recreate the calculations I did at one time, but it seems to me that I came up with a number more like 60,000 square miles. More like the state of Georgia. West Virginia is about 40% of that size. IIRC, that calculation was based on something like an insolation at levels found in the southwest. Levels in the Northeast are a third to a quarter of that.

  • Andrew Allison

    Who needs food (agriculture) when you can have intermittent solar energy [/sarc]

  • Kevin

    This is the least of solar’ problems… if the economics work out they’ll find sites.

    • f1b0nacc1

      But the economics won’t work out, not until they figure out a way to make the sun shine 24/7.

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