Plan Now to Overcome Reflexive Opposition to Large-Scale Solar

Community opposition to solar projects is becoming a common hurdle that renewable energy proponents must respect and address. It often stems from uncertainty, resulting in a tension in which perceptions of place and community character are pitted against the urgency with which we must, as a country, make the transition to clean energy.

APA and ICMA's Solar@Scale Guidebook emphasizes the importance of stakeholder outreach as part of planning for large-scale solar development. Planners and decision-makers would be well-advised to take its guidance to heart.

People are increasingly familiar with the concept of solar projects. But without clear communication regarding what, exactly, is being proposed in or near their community, and what it might mean to host such a development, residents can imagine a worst-case scenario. That fuels opposition. Further, solar sites continue to shift from large-parcel projects in the less-developed hinterlands to agglomerations of smaller, oftentimes disconnected parcels on the periphery of established communities. Many such developments appear spread across lands within an active agricultural area.

Dozens of unconnected parcels along a transmission corridor.

Location map for the proposed Cider Solar Farm in Genesee County, New York, which would cover approximately 3,000 discontiguous acres (Credit: Hecate Energy)

Navigating Community Resistance to Solar

With greater concern comes greater awareness of concern, both as a practical matter for all involved in renewable energy development and as subject matter in academic research and popular media. Among the publications cited in Solar@Scale are:

  • A 2016 study published in Land Use Policy found that public attitudes and preferences for proximity to large-scale solar developments change depending on the type of land being considered;
  • 2020 Brookings Institution report suggesting that a primary source of opposition is the realization of how much land is required for renewable energy by residents who have not previously interacted with power generation; and
  • A 2022 study published in Energy Policy analyzing 53 utility-scale renewable energy projects that were delayed or blocked between 2008 and 2021, which identified key sources of community opposition, including concerns over environmental impacts, perceptions of unfair participation processes, health and safety risks, failure to respect Tribal rights, and potential negative effects on land and property values.

Additional examples of attention being paid to the presence and power of community opposition are prevalent. The Nature Conservancy's Power of Place – West espouses principles to "guide energy planning and policy to achieve better outcomes for climate, conservation, and community," framing its policy recommendations as an approach to offsetting community opposition to clean energy projects.

Inside Climate News recently published "Solar Opposites," a six-part series on growing resistance to renewable energy on agricultural lands in Ohio and Minnesota. And in March 2022 the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law updated both its state–by–state catalog of "local laws to block, delay, or restrict renewable energy" and its list of contested projects, a review of which might jar lose a repressed memory or two if you happen to make your living supporting renewable energy permit applications across the country.

It is abundantly clear that stakeholder outreach will be fundamental to the energy transition. But doing so through rote box-checking — by holding bare-minimum, open house sessions, for example — is no longer going to cut it. That puts control of messaging in the hands of individual project proponents. Our energy system is becoming more decentralized, but that doesn't mean that there shouldn't be coordinated communication from authoritative sources about it.

Indeed, the source often has a bearing on how information is received. Sarah Mills, Senior Project Manager at the University of Michigan's Center for Local, State, and Urban Policy, who studies energy development and communities, talks about the idea of "trusted messengers." A recent survey of Michigan local government officials found that local government associations and local utilities are the most trusted sources of information about local energy programs. (Private energy contractors or consultants — hey! — were the least trusted.)

A community that has anticipated and planned for the potential of solar energy facilities is less likely to have to mediate reflexive opposition when actual projects are proposed.

Instead, it can be evaluated against established goals and objectives and perhaps some degree of consensus on what is and what is not acceptable. Stakeholder discussions can then focus on specific aspects of the project, working to optimize its fit within their environs.

Fostering Community Engagement in Solar Planning

Helping communities plan for rather than react to proposed solar projects is the point of the Solar@Scale Guidebook. Guidance for planners, local government managers, and local officials includes three key commitments related to community involvement and interaction:

  • Help communities understand the benefits and tradeoffs of solar energy development (Module 1). Communities should receive, from trusted messengers, clear and unbiased assessments of what solar projects might provide as benefits (ranging from contributing to the energy transition or meeting clean energy or environmental goals to economic development and other financial incentives) and the tradeoffs it could require (land conversion, environmental impacts, and effects to historic sites, views, or community character).
  • Foster authentic public communication (Module 3). Considerations for stakeholder engagement and process design are framed by the three essential questions that planners should ask as they embark on such activities: Who is helped? Who is harmed? Who is missing?
  • Improve applicant submissions by supplying developers with educational materials (Module 5). A key point made in the Solar@Scale guidance is that incomplete applications not only waste jurisdiction's time and add to development costs, but that rushed applications run the risk of failing to solicit and respond to community input. That's practically inviting opposition. Educating developers on what is expected in a complete application is also an opportunity to inform them about how informed a community is, what it values, and what it will expect during public engagement processes.

Planners understand better than most the fallibility of a one–size–fits–all solution. Implementation of the approaches recommended in Solar@Scale would not eliminate opposition. But thoughtful application of one or more of the strategies, as appropriate for individual communities, could establish a better understanding of the totality of what is being proposed when a solar project application is on the table. It might allow for more substantive, productive discussions and decisions. And every action taken to address opposition incrementally improves our collective prospects of responding to climate change through the evolution of our energy systems.

Solar@Scale is a partnership between the International City/County Management Association (ICMA) and the American Planning Association (APA) that aims to help cities, towns, counties, and special districts understand and realize the potential benefits of large-scale solar development.

Have a question about Solar@Scale or want to share your experiences with planning and zoning for large-scale solar development? Contact Interested in hosting a regional workshop? Let us know.

Top image: Photo by Rob Davis, AgriSolar Clearinghouse, Flickr

About the Author
Josh Hohn, AICP, is a visual resources practice lead at Stantec. He produces visual impact assessments, mostly for power generation and transmission projects across the U.S.

March 6, 2023

By Joshua Hohn, AICP