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Not on My Back Forty
Beyond the culture war over wind and solar power
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In March 2021, the residents of Logan County, Kentucky, received some interesting news. A Nashville-based company called Silicon Ranch had just struck a deal to lease about sixteen hundred acres of farmland in the county, down the road from a truck stop and a Baptist church. The land had previously been fertile ground for growing corn, but now Silicon Ranch wanted to turn it into a solar farm, stretching photovoltaic panels across empty fields, streams, and patches of forest. The panels would produce power under the auspices of the Franklin D. Roosevelt-era Tennessee Valley Authority, which would sell the electricity to facilities including a Facebook data center and a General Motors assembly plant. The construction of the project would create more than four hundred temporary jobs, and Silicon Ranch promised to hire people from Logan County.

What happened next was the same thing that has happened in rural areas all over the country over the past decade: the community erupted. Dozens of people showed up at public meetings and urged county commissioners not to let the project go forward. Farmers spoke out, saying the United States couldn’t afford to take the cropland out of circulation, and that metals from the panels might leak out of the solar site and destroy surrounding vegetation. “Food production should be at the top of our list as a land use for prime agricultural grain, not solar panels,” said one resident. (The county grew more than fifty-nine thousand acres of corn as of 2017.) As public meetings were held where residents spoke out, county leaders battered the solar producer with requests for more information about environmental impacts. They have yet to issue the project a permit.

A few hundred miles away, in Logan County, Ohio, the exact same fight was playing out over a different solar project. A three-thousand-plus-acre project called the Fountain Point Solar Farm caused swift outrage, leading around a hundred people to show up to a high school cafeteria to voice their opposition. One resident at the meeting said he was opposed to the project “mostly because of its size”; another resident said, “I’m not opposed to solar power . . . the issues here to me are that it’s being developed in the dark of the night, behind closed doors.” A grassroots organization called “No Solar in Logan County (Ohio)” popped up to gather donations and urge locals to call their county commissioners. Even as the commissioners debated whether to approve the Fountain Point Solar Farm, they passed a separate measure that designated several townships as off-limits to future large-scale solar projects.

Sometimes, this is what democracy looks like.

Dearth: Wind and Fire

All electricity is produced somewhere, and every form of power generation creates some kind of negative externality, perceived or otherwise. For well over a hundred years, the governments and companies that produce electricity and energy have had to find ways to relate to the people who live near sites of production like coal mines, oil wells, and nuclear plants. Sometimes these relationships are mutualistic, sometimes they’re parasitic, and other times they verge on colonial. But, until now, the encounter between energy producers and neighbors has almost always ended with the facility getting built.

In the nineteenth century, the development of coal power allowed England and other European nations to leap into the industrial era and leave behind millennia of reliance on so-called “biofuels,” i.e., wood. But this step forward entailed significant and immediate costs. Coal had to be mined from underground pits, an almost ludicrously dangerous occupation: when the Hartley pit mine shaft in northern England collapsed in 1862, 204 men and children were killed. Even when mines weren’t collapsing, the workers who carted coal up to the surface and stoked it into furnaces often developed a host of debilitating diseases like black lung. Meanwhile, many citizens of the nineteenth-century United States saw coal as anathema to their national identity, thought of coal furnaces as ugly, and believed food cooked with coal was nasty. No less an authority than Nathaniel Hawthorne worried that “social intercourse cannot long continue what it has been, now that we have subtracted from it so important and vivifying an element as firelight.” It took decades of patience and a concerted advertising campaign by the coal industry before the fuel saw widespread usage. The communities that accepted coal mines and adopted coal furnaces did so not because they were ignorant of coal’s dangers but because they believed they stood to benefit from the industry that might poison them. This calculation only got easier after the advent of electricity: since coal was the key to power generation, extracting it became a more lucrative business, and that lucre trickled down to the people in the mine shaft.

The twentieth century saw the global expansion of oil and gas extraction and the concomitant growth of the petrochemical sector, both of which require enormous amounts of real estate in order to operate. With the exception of places like Los Angeles, most oil and gas extraction takes place far away from major population centers, in remote communities where a land buyout from an oil company can mint millionaires overnight. In rural DeSoto Parish, Louisiana, for instance, the fracking boom led to the construction of new school buildings, a new public library, and a new church building for a congregation that sold its gas rights. Individual landowners paid off their houses and bought new Cadillacs. Large cities weren’t entirely immune to the buildout: the dictates of a global energy market encouraged companies to construct refineries and chemical plants all along the Gulf of Mexico and on the outskirts of many major cities, and here, too, the argument was that the facilities would employ hundreds of local, unionized workers.

It’s not as though there weren’t protests about all these projects. Of course there were, especially over the past fifty years, as environmental justice has become a cornerstone concern for the green movement. Environmentalists have waged war on pipelines, rigs, and refineries for decades, especially in regions like Louisiana’s Cancer Alley, home to the nation’s largest cluster of refineries, including Shell’s Norco complex and chemical plants like the one owned by Dow. In almost every case, though, the local governments in question chose the short-term boon of an economic payout, even when it meant subjecting citizens to long-term health impacts. In communities across Louisiana, oil and chemical companies have even directly funded schools and emergency facilities to prop up local governments, sometimes in lieu of actually paying them taxes. A sort of Stockholm syndrome took hold, wherein many residents supported oil and gas because there were no other jobs, and it didn’t seem like there could be any other jobs. This remained the case even when companies like Condea Vista spilled toxic ethylene dichloride into the Calcasieu River near Lake Charles.

More recently, as private capital has rushed toward renewable energy, private solar and wind projects have begun to proliferate around the country, popping up in desert exurbs and farming breadbaskets. These projects are an essential step toward decarbonizing the power sector and slowing down climate change, but they have been met with fierce opposition in all parts of the United States. In dozens of small towns and counties, furious citizens have used the levers of local democracy to slow down or defeat new solar projects, or to impose bans on future renewable construction, making it increasingly difficult to expand renewable power generation at anything like the necessary rate.

We won’t overcome this opposition by persuading protesters that they’re mistaken about solar and wind, but rather by finding a way to overleap the processes of local democracy altogether; the problem is coming from the bottom up, but it needs to be solved from the top down. Because achieving a green economy requires us to remake the very fabric of our world, altering systems for power production and transportation and manufacturing, we need to act everywhere all at once, not just in a few particular places. In other words, decarbonizing the power grid on the timeline that scientists have agreed is necessary to restrain global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius will require facing up to a fundamental paradox of climate action in our idiosyncratic democracy.

Jack Be NIMBY

Renewables like solar and wind take up enormous amounts of space, which means building them requires buying lots of land and going through very complex permitting processes to get approval from state, local, and federal agencies. In most states, local governments have discretion over whether to issue permits for large construction projects or zoning changes, state power siting boards can approve or deny the proposed locations for large energy projects, and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has final say over interstate transmission lines and some large power generation projects. (Meanwhile the federal permissions process for offshore wind is so laborious that there is now 440 times more offshore wind capacity in various stages of permitting than there is in operation.) Even if a landowner agrees to sell her property to a solar company, the company must produce exhaustive environmental impact statements and convince local officials to allow a zoning variance, state officials to approve the project siting, and so on. At the same time, solar and wind facilities don’t require all that many people to operate or maintain, so the benefits they offer to nearby communities are less substantial than those presented by an oil refinery or a nuclear power plant. A cranky neighbor might tolerate an oil refinery if the refinery employs his son, sister, and niece. But he has no reason to tolerate a wind turbine that employs no one he knows.

Solar and wind projects are an essential step toward decarbonizing the power sector and slowing down climate change, but they have been met with fierce opposition in all parts of the United States.

Furthermore, the land dynamics of renewable energy mean that every new transaction can become fodder for a culture war. Solar and wind projects need to be on large, flat tracts of land, and a great deal of the large, flat tracts of land in the United States are right now given over to farming or ranching. Thus, many solar projects require builders to clear an active farm and build a large metal structure on top of it, a sort of readymade metaphor for the imposition of one system of cultural values onto another. Solar panels don’t have to be built on farmland, of course—panels can be installed along highways or on top of warehouses—but the cheapest land available for purchase is often farmland or potential farmland. Small wonder that so many of these projects have aroused vociferous backlash in communities where farming is not only the symbol of a bygone local economy but also an aesthetic constant. Wind is even more difficult to build out than solar, in part because turbines are taller and thus attract more attention. A recent study of wind opposition in Iowa found that fifteen of the state’s ninety-nine counties have already passed prohibitive regulations on wind development—or outright moratoriums—and projected that as many as 77 percent of potential wind power development areas are unavailable for development under existing ordinances.

You don’t need to look that far ahead to find examples. In the past year alone, there have been dozens of campaigns against solar and wind, ranging from the quixotic to the vengeful. An organizer in rural Kansas opposes these projects because she believes the herbicides used on solar sites could leak into surrounding forests and fields, and that the panels might expose nearby residents to electromagnetic fields. Complaints in other rural areas have included soil erosion and the loss of pristine scenery, although a county in North Carolina banned commercial solar for the opposite reason—on the grounds that it “consumes large amounts of arable or potentially industrial or residential land.” (One commissioner was more candid when he said, “My constituents said they don’t want it.”) The most important concern is property values: at a hearing over a solar farm in Bartholomew County, Indiana, a real estate broker cited research that shows building a solar farm can lower nearby home values by 2–7 percent. In one rural Ohio county where a company proposed a large wind farm, community groups exploded with stories about wind turbines causing birth defects in horses and about the dangers of so-called infrasound. None of the aforementioned theories had any validity, but the protests took off anyway, and in many cases resulted in the projects being canceled or delayed indefinitely. It wasn’t so much about what people believed as about what they wanted, and they didn’t want solar or wind. They were engaged citizens, and they voted and showed up to community meetings and made their voices heard. Because of all this, around 1.7 gigawatts of proposed solar capacity were canceled last year, equivalent to about ten percent of the solar capacity that did get installed, according to a report by the energy research firm Wood Mackenzie.

Big Sky Country

It’s easy to blame “misinformation” for these controversies, or to sketch out an uncharitable picture of the conservative smallholder who sacrifices the planet to ensure she gets a good night’s sleep. The reality is more complicated. To argue that concerns about metal leaching into vegetation and wind turbines making too much noise are stoked by Fox News and Facebook memes is to imply that opponents of renewable energy just need to be educated and convinced, handed a peer-reviewed study or shuttled around on a tour of a beautiful wind farm. It’s more likely that the chain of causation works in the opposite direction: many people in rural areas are opposed to renewable energy and don’t want it near them, so they latch on to any conspiracy theory that helps justify those feelings.

In other words, decarbonizing the power grid on the timeline that scientists have agreed is necessary will require facing up to a fundamental paradox of climate action in our idiosyncratic democracy.

Even if it were possible to deprogram the people who think wind turbines cause cancer, it wouldn’t address the root problem. The entrenched legal precedent of the United States and the past century of bureaucratic expansion have created a byzantine system for regulating land use, one that is especially difficult for renewable companies to navigate. The federal government can speed up its own permitting process for new renewable power projects and transmission lines, or it can offer tax incentives to counties that support renewable development. But it doesn’t have any authority over how rural states, most of them under Republican control, govern the siting of power projects, nor can it easily surmount the fact that local governments maintain veto power over many land use decisions. The likes of Chevron and ConocoPhillips solved this conundrum not through the rhetorical persuasion of community holdouts, but by making an economic proposition—you breathe in benzene from our refinery, we employ you to work in it. Many communities along the Gulf of Mexico saw this offer as one they couldn’t refuse. The same goes for the people who lived near nuclear power plants like Diablo Canyon in California, which was built by the utility Pacific Gas & Electric. There were numerous concerns about the dangers of building a nuclear power plant near several fault lines, and the permitting process for the plant took many years, but in the end, the incentives won out. “Information” had nothing to do with it.

The economic appeal of solar and wind projects is not nearly as persuasive, since these projects employ far fewer people, and indeed the autonomous nature of the projects is part of the reason they’re so profitable in the first place. The electricity produced by a solar farm may lead to significant cost savings on the power bills of people who live near it, but a dozen bucks off your electricity bill doesn’t have the same allure as a union job with a pension. Even the farmers who sell out to solar companies benefit far less than similar parties in oil-rich areas: oil companies pay landowners top dollar because the oil they want is beneath a few specific homes and no others. But a solar developer can go a few miles down the road and the sun will still be shining, so there’s no need to pay anyone an exorbitant premium.

There is another way to approach the problem of energy siting, however. In the twentieth century, as the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation set out to irrigate and modernize the American West, it built dozens of hydropower stations on federal lands, most of them associated with large reservoirs like Lake Powell and Lake Mead. As long as the federal government was using land that it owned, and as long as the government could make it through the federal approvals process, there was no need to get local clearance, or to appease the cranky settlers who lived nearby. Thus came about architectural marvels like the Hoover Dam, which can generate enough power each year to light up almost four hundred thousand homes. The Bureau’s hydroelectric portfolio generates four million megawatt hours of power per year, several times as much as a solar farm like the aforementioned one in Logan County.

These hydropower projects were not without their sins—building them involved the violent dispossession of Indigenous people and the permanent wreckage of numerous river ecosystems—but the principle is sound. The federal government can do whatever it wants with federal lands and waters: it can choose to lease or not lease parts of the Gulf of Mexico to oil companies, and it can choose to lease or not lease parts of the California coastline to offshore wind developers. There is enough empty federal territory in the sunnier and windier parts of the United States to build solar and wind farms that could power the entire country several times over, and the federal government does in theory have the authority to lease that land for those purposes, or to build the projects itself. At the very least, a government willing to approach renewable siting from the top down could help shore up a private rollout that may otherwise be slowed down by land-use protests in other areas. Moreover, doing so would take control of some power generation out of private hands, following the model of the New York Power Authority, a state agency created by FDR to produce public power.

Given how difficult it was for the present Democrat-controlled Congress to pass even a modest package of tax credits for clean energy, such a full-scale intervention is about as likely as a radical reform to this country’s land-use law. Even if Senator Joe Manchin’s proposed federal permitting reform bill does end up passing, it will only change the permissions process for federal projects, not disempower local land-use controls; in any case the bill will be a double-edged sword, since it will speed up the construction of pipelines and gas terminals as well as utility-scale renewable projects. Whatever other factors influence the market for energy development, it seems likely that renewable developers will continue to face this last and most befuddling hurdle. This logjam isn’t so much the product of political timidity or private avarice as it is a logical outcome in a complex, imperfect, gigantic modern democracy. Every time a new solar farm displaces a gas plant, it creates a marginal benefit for millions of people around the world, some of whom are alive now and some of whom are not yet born. At the same time, it creates more tangible benefits—and costs—for a handful of corporations, farmers, politicians, and concerned neighbors. There is no meaningful way to reconcile these costs and benefits, or to subordinate the latter to the former, within the current U.S. political system. The local representatives elected by a given community, the state officials appointed by the governors they elect, and the bureaucrats hired by the department heads confirmed by the Senate after being appointed by the president elected by the electors they elect, all have control over whether a particular wind farm gets built. The residents themselves have some amount of control, too, if they show up at meetings and scream.

To be sure, this is a long way from counting stones in the Agora—our system of government may be democratic in nature, but it bears little resemblance to idealized Democracy with a capital D. Not only do we have a Constitution that affords rural populations outsized influence over presidential elections and the composition of Congress, we also have a system of local government that privileges the squeakiest wheels, giving a vanishing minority of landholders an effective veto over large capital projects that would deliver some form of benefit to millions or even billions of people. Local government makes sense in theory because it guarantees a right to self-determination for small communities, ensuring they don’t get swallowed up by the will of a tyrannical majority and can retain some control over what their environment looks like. But this equation breaks down when that local control extends to the machinery of energy production and allows communities to decide whether their power generation infrastructure does or does not create surging seas and devastating famines thousands of miles away.

There is no shortage of ways to make our democracy more balanced and more representative—automatic voter registration, a national holiday for voting, abolition of the Senate and the Electoral College, a return of the Fairness Doctrine, overturning Citizens United—but even a laundry list of pro-democracy reforms might not make people in rural areas like Logan County any more amenable to wind turbines and solar farms. In a diverse country of over three hundred million, a trash bag bursting at the seams with hundreds of years of history and contradictions, some minority interests will always find themselves in tension with programs of broader welfare. Regardless, it is clear that the existing system we have is far from equipped to handle a crisis of global scale and maddening complexity. Each of us may have some say over what happens on our little patch of ground, but we all live under the same sky. This fact was always going to be a bitter pill to swallow, but in the United States it seems to have gone down the wrong pipe.