Many years ago at at a DOE/NARUC conference, I took note when Christopher Flavin of the environmental Left (EL) Worldwatch Institute commented that he didn’t support solar farms (macro solar) because of their large resource and land requirement. 1
‘Wow!’ I thought. That depletes the EL supply-side strategy, leaving just industrial wind and distributed (micro-solar)–and maybe a little biomass.
I was reminded of this when I read a recent article in ClimateWire (sub. req.), by Lacey Johnson, “Boom in Solar Panels injects NIMBY Battles into Neighborhoods.”
The story begins with Barbara Katz, whose hilltop home in historic north Baltimore, amid roaming wildlife, was threatened by her neighbor’s plan to install a 600-panel solar array. Johnson reports:
“My initial reaction was, ‘Oh my gosh, this is going to be an eyesore,'” remembers Katz, who was confronted by a plan for more than 600 ground-based solar panels on her neighbors’ lawn. “No one would want this in their backyard. It looks like it’s an industrial park.”
It takes a good deal of work — and regulations — to keep suburban communities looking picture perfect, and arrays of shiny solar panels don’t always fit the vision homeowners have for their neighborhoods. All over the country, citizens like Katz have begun organizing to block renewable energy projects, throwing a wrench into some peoples’ plans to “go green.”
She reports that while the U.S. solar industry enjoyed a business boom last year due to government subsidies and falling costs, this “good news for the environment” was also “an annoyance for residents who are invested in keeping up the traditional appearances of their surroundings.”
The NIMBY (“not in my backyard”) problem has gone from landfills and power lines to wind farms and residential solar arrays, Johnson adds. In response, the solar lobby wants to differentiate their product from blight. Homeowners associations should look at “”someone’s roof looking slightly different” from “painting your house yellow polka dots,” stated one solar installer.
But for Katz, the negative externality of micro-solar is about economics too:
“The whole backside of my house faces that — the kitchen, dining room, living room, bathroom and a lovely cut stone patio,” said Katz, who believes the panels would also destroy the ecosystem of birds and animals that pass through her yard. “The neighborhood is not opposed to renewable energy and being green,” she explained. “Folks who have signed the petition are doing so because they feel it will lower the property value of their homes.”
Johnson goes on to report that many states’ “solar/wind access” policies protecting homeowner solar or wind systems are often overruled by bylaws of homeowners associations and historic districts. In Aspen, Colorado, for example,
residents are required to notify their neighbors before installing any solar array larger than 200 square feet — barely half the size of a small rooftop. Homeowners are then subject to public hearings and could pay up to $500 for a residential solar review. The regulations were adopted by Pitkin County last summer, after a family 15 miles north of Aspen, in Snowmass, complained about a blinding glare reflecting off their neighbor’s panels.
Johnson’s piece continues:
“When I saw pictures, it was really bad,” admitted Mike Tierney, the owner of a local installation company, Aspen Solar. “It would be tough if it was my house and I had to look at it every day.” He said the regulations, which create extra paperwork and expense for his customers, have already taken a toll on his business.
Ending the piece on an optimistic note, Johnson describes new efforts by scientists and architects to make “smarter” solar technology such as solar shingles (a Dow Chemical project) to “make aesthetic problems, like glare, a thing of the past.”
But can this be done in any sort of a cost-effective manner? And if not, what does this say about the resource costs (think emissions) of the whole effort?
This, indeed, is the curse of dilute energy versus the dense energies of oil, gas, and coal. It is the curse of the sun’s (dilute) flow versus the (dense) stock of the sun’s work over the ages.
With the fossil-fuel era still young, on-grid solar might have to wait for another century, if not millennium.
1. Christopher Flavin, Comments at a conference on the Department of Energy National Energy Modeling System (March 30, 1998, Washington, D.C.). Flavin would prefer distributed solar to distributed natural gas, however. Robert Bradley, “The Increasing Sustainability of Conventional Energy,” April 22, 1999, p. 10 & fn. 41).