Renewable Energy Is Reckoning With Its Perception in Rural America
Local opposition to solar and wind projects is causing headaches for the energy transition. New research shows some opportunities to move forward.
Middle America is blanketed with flat, open land that has, for generations, been used to turn the soil, rain and sun's rays into corn, soybeans, wheat and more.
But if the US is going to transition from an energy system based on burning fossil fuels into one that relies on renewable energy sources, some of that land is going to be transformed into solar and wind farms.
One hurdle: The clean energy industry hasn't done a great job of convincing rural America that a solar farm can be just as good of a neighbor as a cornfield.
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"There's definitely skepticism, rightly so," said Samantha Sawmiller, director of development at Open Road Renewables, a Texas-based renewable energy developer. The problem, according to Sawmiller, is one of communication. And the industry has struggled with it.
Sawmiller grew up on a farm in southwestern Ohio. She still lives in the state, which has seen significant political pushback against rural solar and wind development in recent years. Opposition that ultimately defeated a planned solar farm in one Ohio village was the subject of a yearlong investigation by Inside Climate News and ABC News. And in 2021, the state passed a law effectively allowing county officials to bar new renewable energy development in their jurisdictions.
The clean energy transition faces a political problem not in Washington, which is ready to funnel billions of dollars toward the effort, but in statehouses, courthouses and farmhouses across the country: How do you convince the neighbors to let you move in?
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Rural Americans have doubts
Protests against renewable energy projects take the forms typical of political movements in 21st century America: Yard signs with catchy slogans and Facebook arguments where the most vocal on both sides trade talking points. But the loudest voices aren't always a representative sample.
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The online survey of more than 2,600 rural residents found 63% believed that while rural areas hosted these projects, they would primarily benefit other communities, and that 62% believed they wouldn't bring as many high-paying jobs as promised.
"The economic messages aren't being received well because [rural Americans are] not seeing them as valid," said Robin Pressman, head of Embold Research. "They don't believe that the economic benefits are going to fully follow."
The majority of those surveyed (54%) said they didn't think renewable energy sources could ever meet 100% of the country's energy needs, and 57% believed the US should rely on a mix of fossil fuels and renewables. That was the top concern cited in the poll.
Concerns identified by a significant number of people also included that projects take up too much farmland, that they might cause higher utility bills, that they ruin the appearance of the landscape and that the benefits mostly go to those outside of their community.
But the survey also showed that misinformation by some renewable energy opponents -- namely that living near a solar or wind farm causes significant health risks -- isn't the main driver of opposition. Only 5% said fears that wind and solar farms are bad for people's health were a top concern.
"When we asked an open-ended question, [health] was not raised at all as a negative," Pressman said. "It was raised occasionally as a positive, because of air pollution getting better, but there's not a lot of stickiness to the misinformation on health."
Despite all those concerns, when it came down to it, support for renewable energy projects outpaced opposition. While projects earn more support when they are in "communities across your state" rather than "on a property near yours," a majority supported solar projects. The weakest support was for wind projects "on a property near yours," with 49% support and 44% opposition.
"The bottom line is that there's actually a pretty darn good match between what rural Americans see their communities as needing and what renewable energy can deliver," said Mike Casey, president of Tigercomm, a renewable energy public affairs firm that co-funded and presented the findings alongside Embold Research. "The industry has not, so far, been convincing that they can and will deliver those things. Therein lies the challenge and the opportunity."
Renewable energy companies aren't seen as a reliable source of information, according to the poll -- to the tune of 65% saying they didn't trust them too much or at all. Only people in state government and social media sites were trusted less.
Who was trusted? Farmers and ranchers earned the top spot, with 78% reporting they trusted them some or a lot. Veterans were second, followed by friends and family.
That rings true with Sawmiller, who grew up on a farm and served four years of active duty in the US Marine Corps. The most important thing is building trust in communities where developments are being built, she said.
"People just want to be heard," she said. "A lot of people are afraid of change and have fear of the unknown, which is what we're seeing with a lot of these projects."
Sawmiller, who was not involved in the poll but saw the presentation at RE+, pointed to one of the survey's findings about what rural Americans find compelling about renewable energy: It helps national security by reducing dependence on imported fossil fuels. Messaging should emphasize "connecting the dots for people that our national security is dependent on diversifying our energy portfolio here in the United States and removing our dependence on foreign sources of energy," she said.
Part of the argument is just demonstrating that there are benefits to renewable energy -- and that they accrue even to the folks living near the solar and wind farms. Nate Owen, the CEO of Ampion, a community solar technology company, said saving money is a big selling point. "It's very hard for people to argue against cost savings at a time when we're seeing historical highs for electricity across most of the major markets in the country," he said.
Casey said the research showed that renewable energy can align with the interests of rural Americans: He said the industry can improve infrastructure, provide good jobs and opportunities for the future and offer low-cost, locally produced energy.
"What we need to change is not what we're offering but how we're offering it," he said. "Renewable energy is a match for what they want. It's on us to accommodate the realities of rural America in 2023."
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Jon Reed is an editor for CNET covering home energy, including solar panels and energy efficiency. Jon has spent more than a decade making a living by asking other people questions. He previously worked as an editor at NextAdvisor, focused on home loans and the housing market; as a statehouse reporter in Columbus, Ohio; and as a reporter in Birmingham, Alabama. When not asking people questions, he can usually be found half asleep trying to read a long history book while surrounded by cats.