Keep the Solar Rabbit Hole Local


Solar farms require government subsidies to be viable, as Alex Kuffner notes in passing in a Providence Journal article on their proliferation:

Those issues came to a head after state Rep. Jeremiah O’Grady, D-Lincoln, Pawtucket, introduced rival legislation — cosponsored by House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello — that aimed to stop the conversion of large tracts of forestland for renewable energy by blocking state financial incentives that are crucial to developers.

Grow Smart supported the O’Grady bill, as did Save The Bay, but other environmental groups and clean-energy advocates came out against the legislation, arguing that it would have a chilling effect on the renewable-energy industry.

The crux of Kuffner’s article is that local communities are having trouble balancing the demands of developers and the stated interests of their residents, and they’re looking to the state to resolve the problems for them:

Over the past year or so, municipalities across Rhode Island have struggled to strike a balance between preserving woodlands, farms and open space while allowing the development of large solar farms that in many cases require cutting down hundreds if not thousands of trees. …

[Residents] complain that local officials lack the expertise to weigh the potential impacts of projects that at their largest can cover 100 acres or more and, along with the support of groups like Grow Smart Rhode Island, have urged the state to step in and take a direct hand in deciding where solar farms can and cannot be built.

These Rhode Island residents are looking to the state to strengthen their hand, but right over the border in Westport, Massachusetts, residents are discovering that state interference isn’t that helpful, which the wonderfully named resident Sky Wild describes, here:

… Many of us working on becoming “solar educated” have learned that the Commonwealth made a law that basically opens the door to commercial solar developers and infers that local jurisdictions cannot unreasonably regulate solar development except in the case of “public health, safety or welfare.”

What? Are our hands tied? Can the state dictate our local land use and zoning? We have an obligation to be the stewards of our Town, to represent its values and its natural resources. Our esteemed Planning Board is obligated to protect the public good, and to understand what health, safety and welfare entails now and for the future.

Among the consequences for health, safety, and welfare are items that aren’t often mentioned while people balance decisions about costs, benefits, and greenery.  Here’s Wild:

Those of us who choose to dig into this issue are learning that solar waste is difficult and expensive to recycle. Manufacturing the stuff is easier than getting rid of it. Sound at all familiar? Solar panels are manufactured using hazardous materials, heavy metals and mixed waste, and cannot be placed in landfills. Solar panels have a limited life span. Did you ever wonder why many solar dealers allow you to own those bulky panels after 20 years? Why, because they have limited value and are expensive to dump.

Of course, Wild represents one local advocate providing her understanding of the topic, which is still up for debate, but a recent Forbes article by Michael Shellenberger seems to summarize the issue fairly.  Yes, the panels are generally safe and largely recyclable, but they can be damaged, and the cost of actually recycling them can be prohibitively high.  That could mean greater waste and/or more public subsidies in the future.

Too often, folks like to give higher levels of government the power to balance various concerns under the assumption that it will do so in favor of the electorate.  Fashionable green energy shows, however, that subsidizing an industry can enrich a special interest that then can buy greater influence, which is amplified by the politicians’ own interest in the social branding that won the subsidy in the first place.

At least at the local level, residents will be more likely to look into arguments beyond the sales pitch because they have to live right next to the thing, whatever it is.  With the matter having caught their attention, they have a shot of making up their own minds and pressuring their neighbors to make more representative decisions… after which, everybody locally will live with the consequence, one way or another.

Advocates make a mistake when they recoil from the discomfort and challenge of local government.  Contentious and exhausting meetings often mean that everybody’s interests are actually being considered.  Bringing in the state or federal government as more muscle to protect your interests ignores the reality that big government has interests of its own.

  • Rhett Hardwick

    “public health, safety or welfare.” Collectively, these give the government powers which are not stated in the Constitution. These are known as the “police powers” considered inherent rights of government, even if not found in the Constitution. I would be wary of their exercise, Constitutional limitations are few.

    The classic example is “Zoning” which would be a “taking” except for the “police powers”. Theoretically, Zoning protects pulic safety by providing a distance between wells and septic systems, sideyards to prevent spread of fire, etc. Someone has really taken that ball and run with it.

    Note that Planning Board decisions are frequently tied, however tenuously, to “Public Safety”. i.e. “An emergency vehicle would have difficulty entering there”.