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Overcoming polarization toward a win/win in the unnecessary ‘battle’ over Ohio solar and wind

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Photo by American Public Power Association on Unsplash

Now that a huge breakthrough in climate legislation has been made at the federal level that provides unprecedented funding for green energy, the spotlight moves to the states as “ground zero” for implementation.

Yet this transition across the country has become entrapped in a polarized battle over approval of solar and wind farms.

Here in Ohio — which looms as one of the biggest emitters of greenhouse gases in the nation at a scale that truly has global impact — this situation is particularly acute. An article by Jake Zuckerman in Ohio Capitol Journal reports that no less than 10 counties have actually implemented bans on solar and wind farms, and the number is growing.

Here are examples of intense charges made at a solar farm hearing, Inside Climate News reports: “Property values will plummet and they will have nothing to leave to their children and grandchildren,” “I’m a firm believer in property owners being able to do what they want, until it quite possibly destroys my health.”

Opponents “succeeded in casting solar as a destroyer of community,” the article said.

What is the big picture backdrop against which these local battles are playing out? The decibel level of climate science is approaching a deafening roar. The Intergovernmental Panel On Climate Change (IPCC) representing a full 195 nations recently issued an ominous warning that humanity is perilously close to being too late to act before it all begins to spin out of control.

Its words: “Any further delay in concerted global action will miss a brief and rapidly closing window to secure a livable future.”

It is difficult to be more stark than that. A recent documentary broadcast on PBS public TV provides dramatic illustration of how close we are to that tipping point.

But here is the key question: Is there a way to see things that allows us to break through this polarization and find our way to a win-win that includes the future of our children?

When concerns are examined, it is found there is not an opposition to clean energy itself, but rather the ways in which these new technologies in their current form are impacting communities. But are these current forms “set in stone?” Or can modifications be made which address these concerns? The answer is yes.

An example would be the concern about solar facilities taking farmland out of food production.

A new field of study has opened up at universities around the world called agrivoltaics: “Researchers think agrivoltaics is the right win-win approach. Crops and panels can work in concert on the same sites, they contend, instead of competing,” the Indianapolis Star reports.

A tangible example: “Some are looking at growing different types of crops including leafy greens and fruits. Smaller plants — such as lettuces, tomatoes and berries — are better suited for an agrivoltaic environment because they benefit from shade and require smaller equipment for planting and harvesting.’’

An important news report video on agrivoltaics is available here.

Since wind turbines take up less space, the impact on farmland is much reduced. A different concern has been visual aesthetics. But a recent Ohio Supreme Court decision  offers an alternative that speaks to that.

In a definitive ruling by the highest state court, the first freshwater offshore wind farm in the country — named “Icebreaker’’ — was approved for Lake Erie. The path is now open for a major expansion of this resource. Since these turbines are placed miles from shore, there is no issue of visual aesthetics for nearby neighbors.

An additional concern has been the impact on birds. Two issues present themselves here.

One is the current approval criteria for the Ohio Power Siting Board (OPSB) — the state agency that oversees the approval of both wind and solar farms. When it was formed 50 years ago in 1972, there was essentially zero public awareness about climate disruption. As a result, climate is not even listed as a criterion to consider during decision-making. Given the overwhelming consensus and urgency of the world science community, this stance is severely out of date and climate impact must be adopted as an official criterion for such decisions.

If this was in place, it would directly address the issue of birds — which are being massively impacted by climate disruption. According to David Yarnold, president of the National Audubon Society, the most respected authority on birds in the world: “Two-thirds of America’s birds are threatened with extinction from climate change … It’s a bird emergency.”

From a collaborative study of North American birds by seven different institutions:  “The findings show that 2.9 billion adult breeding birds have been lost since 1970, including birds in every ecosystem.”

Audubon has also found that the number of bird fatalities due to turbine blades — already dwarfed to the extreme in comparison with the devastating impact of climate disruption — has been exaggerated. The reason leads to a second and very unfortunate issue. The debate about both wind and solar farms has now become marred and distorted by an inappropriate infiltration of vested interests.

According to Trish Demeter of the Ohio Environmental Council: “The fossil fuel industry continues to hamper renewable energy development in Ohio … In this case, Murray Energy funded legal opposition to thwart the development of Icebreaker Wind.”

Murray Energy is a coal company. National Public Radio has documented a pattern of consciously presented misinformation both across the country and here in Ohio.

Public hearings are essential, and both sides deserve to have a say. But decisions must be based on the actual merits of the arguments rather than distortions introduced by vested interests. A requirement for full financial disclosure would go a long way toward allowing a clear-eyed and objective evaluation of the issues.

In local hearings to approve these projects, proponents are now finding themselves outnumbered and “out-shouted”  by an opposition fomented by misinformation and fossil fuel funding. This is a tragedy.

Given that the consequences of these decisions carry far beyond county boundaries and impact our collective future, this writer urges state-wide environmental networks to elevate their assistance to these overwhelmed individuals.

The pitched battles now raging at these approval hearings represent a completely false dichotomy.

If we can only look past the rhetoric and keep our “eyes on the prize” of protecting our children’s future, there is indeed a path to a win-win for us all.

As a faith-based human being, I will pray that this occurs.


Gary Houser is a long time public interest writer based in Athens County, co-founder of the Ohio University Ecohouse, advocate for Ohio University conversion to clean electricity, former consultant to the city for its solar array at Athens Community Center, and currently producing educational video resources on the climate crisis.

This commentary was republished from the Ohio Capital Journal under a Creative Commons license.

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