Renewable energy is considering its take on rural America

The central United States is covered in flat, open lands that have been used for generations to transform soil, rain, and sunlight into crops like corn, soybeans, wheat, and more.

But if the United States is to transition from an energy system based on burning fossil fuels to one that relies on renewable energy, some of that land will be converted into solar and wind farms.

One obstacle: The clean energy industry has not done a good job of convincing rural America that solar farms can be as good neighbors as cornfields.

Can solar panels save you money?

Interested in learning about the impact of solar energy on your home? Enter some basic information below and we’ll get an immediate, free estimate of your energy savings.

“There are definitely people who are skeptical, and rightly so,” said Samantha Sawmiller, director of development at Texas-based renewable energy developer Open Road Renewables. Sawmiller believes the problem is communication. . The industry has been grappling with this issue.

Sawmiller grew up on a farm in southwestern Ohio. She still lives in the state, where the development of rural solar and wind energy has faced serious political pushback in recent years. Opposition ultimately defeated plans for a solar farm in an Ohio village that was the subject of a yearlong investigation by Inside Climate News and ABC News. In 2021, the state passed a law that effectively allows county officials to ban new renewable energy development within their jurisdictions.

Can solar panels save you money?

Interested in learning about the impact of solar energy on your home? Enter some basic information below and we’ll get an immediate, free estimate of your energy savings.

It’s not just Ohio. Even in Texas, a state that leads the nation in renewable energy, some communities are trying to block new projects altogether. A study by UC Santa Barbara researchers found that opposition to wind farms is more common in the Northeast and in areas with wealthier and whiter populations.

The political question facing the clean energy transition is not in Washington, where billions of dollars are being prepared, but in statehouses, courthouses and farmhouses across the country: How do you convince your neighbors to let you move in?

solar panel home

Will guide you through how to use solar energy

Rural Americans have concerns

Protests against renewable energy projects have taken the form typical of 21st-century American political movements: yard signs with catchy slogans and debates on Facebook, with the most vocal exchanges between the two sides. But the loudest sounds aren’t always representative samples.

Rural Americans are not necessarily opposed to renewable energy, but they are skeptical. That’s the conclusion of a survey conducted by polling firm Embold Research and presented at the RE+ renewable energy industry conference in September.

An online survey of more than 2,600 rural residents found that 63% believed that while rural areas hosted the projects, they primarily benefited other communities, and 62% believed they would not bring as many high wages as promised job opportunity.

“Economic messages are not well received because (rural Americans) don’t think they are valid,” said Robin Pressman, director of the Embold Research Center. “They don’t believe the economic benefits will fully follow.”

A majority of respondents (54%) said they believe renewable energy will never be able to meet 100% of the country’s energy needs, and 57% believe the United States should use a mix of fossil fuels and renewable energy. This is the top concern in opinion polls.

Concerns raised by many also include that the project takes up too much farmland, could result in higher utility bills, ruins the appearance of the landscape and would primarily benefit people outside the community.

But the survey also shows that misinformation from some renewable energy opponents — that living near solar or wind farms poses serious health risks — is not the main driver of opposition. Only 5% said fear that wind and solar farms could be detrimental to people’s health was their top concern.

“When we asked an open-ended question, (health) was not viewed as a negative at all,” Pressman said. “Because air pollution has improved, people occasionally see that as a positive, but misinformation about health doesn’t have a lot of stick.”

Despite these concerns, the bottom line is that support for renewable energy projects outweighs opposition. Most people support solar projects, although they get more support when they’re located in “communities in your state” rather than “on property near you.” The weakest support was for wind projects “on property near you”, with 49% supporting and 44% opposed.

“The bottom line is there’s actually a very good match between community needs and the need for renewable energy in rural America,” said Mike Casey, president of TigerComm, a renewable energy public affairs firm. Energy Public Affairs, Inc., along with Embold, presented the research. Research. “So far, the industry has not convincingly believed that they can and will deliver these things. That’s the challenge and the opportunity.”

A man wears a shirt with a photo of a solar panel crossed out: "no future"
People in the Callaway County area of ​​New Bloomfield, Missouri, gathered for a Mid-Missouri Landowners Alliance meeting to discuss opposition to a solar farm project.

Build support

Renewable energy companies are not seen as reliable sources of information, with 65% saying they trust them little or not at all, the survey showed. Only those in state government and social media sites were less trusted.

Who is trusted? Farmers and ranchers topped the list, with 78% of respondents saying they trusted them to some extent or a lot. Veterans ranked second, followed by friends and family.

That was certainly the case for Saumuler, who grew up on a farm and served four years in the U.S. Marine Corps. The most important thing, she said, is building trust in the communities being developed.

“People just want to be heard,” she said. “A lot of people are afraid of change, afraid of the unknown, and that’s what we see with a lot of these projects.”

Sawmiller, who was not involved in the poll but had seen the presentation at RE+, pointed to one of the findings regarding the appeal of renewable energy in rural America: It would help the country by reducing its reliance on imported fossil fuels. Safety. She said the message should emphasize “making people understand that our national security depends on diversifying the U.S. energy portfolio and eliminating our dependence on foreign energy sources.”

Part of the argument is simply proving that renewable energy has benefits, and that those benefits even benefit people who live near solar and wind farms. Saving money is a big selling point, said Nate Owen, CEO of community solar technology company Ampion. “It’s hard to argue against cost savings when we’re seeing record levels of electricity in most of the country’s major markets,” he said.

Casey said research shows renewable energy can serve the interests of rural America: He said the industry can improve infrastructure, provide good jobs and opportunities for the future, and provide low-cost, locally produced energy.

“What we need to change is not what we offer, but how we deliver it,” he said. “Renewable energy meets their needs. We have a responsibility to adapt to the realities of rural America in 2023.”

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *