Residents push back against solar, wind farms

Money Glitz | David Baker and Millicent Dent 19 Sep 2019

People love renewable power projects. Just not the one next door. And unlike opposition to fossil fuels due to concerns over pollution and contamination, the hostility toward clean power is driven by aesthetics and property values.

Rows of solar panels threaten to mar pristine vistas, while fears are rising among local residents that towering wind turbines will ruin the bucolic nature of their rural towns and drive down home prices. It's the latest iteration of a longstanding dilemma: people want projects built for the public good - such as affordable housing or roads and power lines - but don't want to be near them.

"There's a reason people live in communities like this," said Pamela Atwater, president of a citizens' group fighting a proposed wind farm on the shores of Lake Ontario.

"It's a big visual impact, a big noise impact. It would change the nature, the character of where we live."

As large projects proliferate across the country, such worries are dimming the green glow that once surrounded an industry built on the promise of saving the world.

San Bernardino County saw a spate of plant construction in the last decade, and some long-time residents suddenly found their views of the desert transformed by fields of panels, said county supervisor Robert Lovingood. "We believe in this industry, but it's a balance," he said "We don't have to disturb more pristine desert."

"Companies are learning that the halo effect of building solar and wind projects isn't necessarily enough to protect them from backlash from NIMBYs," said Alicia Rivera, spokeswoman for renewable developer RES, referring to the "Not in my backyard" sentiment that has long fueled opposition to big infrastructure projects.

But labeling opponents NIMBYs does nothing to win them over. "They think local people just need to become more educated," Atwater said. "That doesn't fly very well."

Land-intensive and highly visible, individual solar and wind projects have often generated friction with potential neighbors.

The pushback may be more noticeable now than, say, 10 years ago, simply because more projects are being proposed.

"Maybe the easy places have been taken," said Cullen Howe, a senior renewable energy advocate for the Natural Resources Defense Council. "Oftentimes, the places these things are now being sited are closer to residential areas, so there's going to be a greater number of people affected."

Renewable developer RES has dealt with its fair share of backlash. In April, it canceled its Summit Lake Wind project, a proposed 130-megawatt wind farm in L'Anse Township, Michigan.

The site, next to an Indian reservation, raised concerns among the Keweenaw Bay Indian community that the turbines would harm their ability to fish and hunt in the area.

"People are right to ask questions about what it means to have a wind farm in a community," said Paul Copleman, a spokesman for Avangrid Renewables, which last year canceled a wind farm. "It's our responsibility to do our best to explain the science, what it's going to mean and convey those benefits."

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