That North Carolina Town Is Afraid of Solar Power Because They Have No Ownership

Image courtesy of khunaspix at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of khunaspix at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Last week, the internet collectively shook its head at the residents of Woodland, a small North Carolina town. At a meeting to discuss a proposed new field of solar panels, Woodland residents offered up some ridiculous protests. One worried that solar panels cause cancer. (They don’t.) A complaint was raised that solar panels draw sunlight away from chlorophyll-producing plants. (Not even remotely true.) And another suggested that the panels “would suck up all the energy from the sun and businesses would not come to Woodland.” Everyone on the internet had a good laugh at the Woodlanders’ expense and promptly moved on.

But David Roberts at Vox published an excellent piece today that explores the story a little further. He discovers that Woodland is an incredibly poor town, and like many poor American towns it’s suffering from a youth drain—young people are moving away at rapid rates. Four out of every ten residents does not have a high school diploma—a demographic that we learned yesterday is losing more ground in America than anyone else. Residents are rightfully worried that their town is slowly being abandoned.

Roberts points out that Woodland doesn’t benefit from the solar panels at all. They don’t get taxes from the solar farms, or jobs, or any cuts to their energy bills. So far as they’re concerned, the panels are just taking up space. Is it any wonder that they’re spreading rumors about the panels? They’re terrifying, they provide no benefit to the town, and they’re a reminder that people have abandoned Woodland.

By way of a solution, Roberts suggests benefit sharing. He shows that complaints from locals go way down when benefit sharing takes place, and he shares some benefit sharing mechanisms from an EU report that have helped clean energy achieve immense levels of popularity in Europe.

1. Community Funds: the local developer provides funds which are at the disposal of the community for common projects or lowering local taxes. These funds are either paid directly into a community fund or collected indirectly through local taxes by the municipality. The use of the funds is managed either by the community or the municipality.

2. Local (Co-)Ownership: the developer grants or offers shares in the project to the local community.

3. Compensation: the developer compensates for possible damages such as ecological damages (e.g. by creating a new habitat for species endangered by the development).

4. Benefits-in-kind: the developer creates improvements to the community, usually during the construction phase.

5. Local Employment: local employment is prioritised the construction phase and/or in the operation phase.

6. Local Contracting: local business are awarded contracts or involved in the development.

7. 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.

8. Indirect Social Benefits: any other benefit accruing to the community which is not directly quantifiable such as prestige, eco-tourism, knowledge etc.

The point of all this is that inclusion works. People don’t fear what they view as part of their community. Clean energy corporations should do something to help America’s shrinking small towns, rather than exploit them. After all, the more they include towns like Woodland in their plans, the more customers they’ll have.

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Paul Constant
Paul Constant has written about politics, books, and film for Newsweek, The Progressive, the Utne Reader, and alternative weeklies around the country.