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admin 25.06.2015

On December 8, a modest local newspaper, the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald, published a story that ended up going viral, bouncing from Reddit to more than 220 other sites. The story was about a town council meeting in Woodland, a North Carolina town with just over 800 residents. Solar companies are converging on Woodland because it is located next to an electrical substation that allows them to feed solar energy into the grid. At the meeting, some Woodland residents had, er, colorful things to say about the danger of solar panels.
The story found its way to the snarkosphere and generated a torrent of mockery as far away as Australia.
And so, with the internet's usual disorienting speed, this odd episode will disappear down the memory hole.
Uncharacteristically for the increasingly red state, Woodland is in North Carolina's solidly Democratic (as in, Democratic since the 1880s) first congressional district. The zip code containing Woodland has a "disproportionately large" population of middle-aged (45 to 64) adults, which is another way of saying that most of the young adults have left. Mary Hobbs has been living in Woodland for 50 years and said she has watched it slowly becoming a ghost town with no job opportunities for young people.
Poor and working-class Americans are acutely aware of the distance between the American dream they learned about growing up and the grim realities around them.
But even for those who don't believe in dark conspiracies, the solar panels popping up around town represent larger social and economic changes that always seem to be benefiting someone else. The town would not benefit, from a tax base standpoint, from the solar farms because they are not located within the town limits, but only in the extraterritorial sections. The only funding the town would get is approximately $7,000 per year for specialized training for the Woodland Fire Department in the event of an electrical malfunction at the solar plant. The power generated would go directly into the electrical grid and would not reduce Woodland’s power bills. It's easy to mock goofy and irrational of fears about solar farms, but they are only an expression of deeper anxieties. The land around the town, once its future, is being industrialized by a company from Somewhere Else, for the profits and benefits of people Somewhere Else, as Woodland continues to struggle. The Woodland episode is not just a random outbreak of nuttiness that got exaggerated by the press. Second is the global trend of urbanization, which is leaving more and more small towns bereft, the tax base shrinking, the aging populace resentful toward modernity.
As clean energy spreads, it's going to bump up against more and more such towns, and clashes like the one in Woodland are only going to get more common. Many voices in the industry urge renewable energy industries to do better, more proactive PR, and there's something to that.

For projects where there is some sort of "benefit sharing," where the community has some stake in the success of the project, NIMBY complaints all but disappear.
What if Strata, as part of its proposal for another solar farm outside of Woodland, had pledged to power Woodland itself with cheap solar power?
Any of these benefit-sharing initiatives could have muted, if not eliminated, the opposition to solar farms in Woodland.
For my part, I can't resist a few jokes at the expense of a retired science teacher who thinks solar panels are going to steal sunlight from plants. If you want to satisfy Woodland's concerns about solar power — and the concerns of many more small towns and rural areas to come — don't focus on photosynthesis or cancer or any of the other inarticulate expressions of anxiety. This model of local ownership is known informally as "energy democracy." The declining cost of small-scale, distributed renewable energy, along with the flourishing of new forms of ownership like community wind, has created an enormous opportunity to put more of the benefits of energy into the hands of ordinary Americans. Advocates for energy democracy are often dismissed as idealists, fixated on a quest orthogonal to the more important goal of reducing emissions. Correction the First: Woodland is in northeast North Carolina, not northwest as originally stated. If you signed up using a 3rd party account like Facebook or Twitter, please login with it instead. The council was considering whether to make a zoning change to a piece of land just outside town, to allow a solar farm to be built there.
The more that solar companies can cut down on energy transmission, the cheaper they can sell their electricity, so building next to substations cuts costs.
A "retired Northampton science teacher" worried that panels would prevent photosynthesis in the area, harming local vegetation. Before it does, though, we should pause a moment and see if there's anything we can learn from it. It's in a rural area, about two hours northeast of Raleigh-Durham and two hours south of Richmond, Virginia.
The town's population is roughly half white and half black, with a smattering of other ethnicities. Some of them conclude that the system has been corrupted, that the America they knew has been reshaped by powerful people with "hidden agendas." Lack of trust breeds conspiracy theories, like solar panels preventing photosynthesis.
Solar farms are colonizing the land around them, but residents play no part in it and get nothing out of it. The land that Woodland is being asked to rezone is currently zoned residential and agricultural. It's not hard to understand the angst, or why, despite pleas from the solar company (Strata), the Woodland town council not only blocked the farm, but voted through a moratorium on future farms. Where fossil-fuel power was centralized in enormous, remote power plants, wind and solar power tend to be spread out.

They are already endemic in the UK and across much of the EU, but it's happening in the US too — in Massachusetts, California, Michigan, Colorado, and elsewhere. This is one reason why renewable energy has spread so fast, and enjoys such enormous public support, in Germany: fully half the country's renewable energy is owned by individuals and co-ops, not big companies or utilities. Community Funds: the local developer provides funds which are at the disposal of the community for common projects or lowering local taxes. Local (Co-)Ownership: the developer grants or offers shares in the project to the local community. Benefits-in-kind: the developer creates improvements to the community, usually during the construction phase.
Energy Price Reduction for the Local Community: the local community is granted the opportunity to either consume energy directly from the development at a discount or to purchase energy at lower prices. Indirect Social Benefits: any other benefit accruing to the community which is not directly quantifiable such as prestige, eco-tourism, knowledge etc. What if it had pledged to train and employ Woodland residents to maintain and manage the solar farms? And they would have been cheaper for Strata — certainly cheaper than not getting to build on this prime piece of land at all. It's not kooky beliefs driving Woodland's opposition to solar farms, it's the entirely valid perception that they are getting nothing out of the industrialization of their land — that, at least for now, renewable energy is just one more face of a contemporary world that has devalued and forgotten them.
But episodes like Woodland show that energy democracy may be a necessary prerequisite to scaling up renewable energy. Finally, the cycle reached its inevitable conclusion with Slate's Eric Holthaus and Mother Jones's Kevin Drum scolding the original mockers for their cultural elitism.
One clear result from both studies and experience is that local communities are more amenable to renewable energy when they have some financial stake in it, some sense of ownership and benefit. These funds are either paid directly into a community fund or collected indirectly through local taxes by the municipality. What if it had offered citizens of Woodland the chance to purchase a small ownership stake in the farm? FRED draws data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which is probably the most reliable, but it only goes to the county level. According to FRED, Northampton County, which contains Woodland, has an unemployment rate hovering around 8 percent. Long story short, getting granular, town-level unemployment data is an unholy pain in the ass.

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