The War On Renewables Heats Up Across America

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Renewables are the latest technology humans use to power their lives. Human muscles, no matter how strong, can only do so much work. But the human brain long ago figured out how to leverage other sources of power to clear the land, harvest crops, and move long distances faster than their feet could carry them. First it was oxen, mules, and horses who did the work. Then waterwheels were used to harness the power of flowing streams before steam took over. Eventually, the internal combustion engine made more things possible and finally electricity became available to perform miracles like elevators that could lift people hundreds of feet into the air in a matter of seconds or power factories.

Until recently, most electricity was created by burning fossil fuels to make steam. That process is now well understood and fully developed. There is only one problem. The exhaust gasses created when oil, coal, or methane gas are burned are altering the Earth’s environment by raising average global temperatures to the point that our glaciers are melting, sea levels are rising, and some areas are experiencing severe flooding while others are turning into deserts due to a lack of rain.

There is a way to have our cake and eat it too — renewables. Wind turbines and solar panels make electricity with no fuel costs and no emissions. The sun is projected to keep on doing what it does for a few billion more years, which means every form of human endeavor far into the distant future could be powered by wind or solar energy that creates no emissions. Yes, there are emissions associates with the manufacture of solar panels and wind turbines.

Every form of human endeavor results in the production of carbon dioxide or other atmospheric pollutants. The animals we raise for food emit large quantities of methane as they fatten up on farms. Digital technology consumes enormous amounts of electricity that has to come from somewhere. There is no free lunch.

But due largely to misinformation disseminated by fossil fuel companies, people all across America believe that renewables like wind and solar are a threat to their way of life and must be stopped. The fact is, climate change is a threat to their way of life. There will be no farming if the spring planting gets flooded or the crops bake in fields without water during the growing season. The farming way of life is being threatened, but not by renewables like wind and solar. In fact, only renewables can help slow the degradation of the climate that is the biggest threat to farm communities.

On February 4, 2024, USA Today published a lengthy story about one farm family in Kansas who want to add solar panels to their property. Donna Knoche and Robert Knoche are both are in their 90s. He is a former veterinarian known to many of the people in the county as Doc. His family has owned the land for nearly 200 years. For them, leasing acres to a solar farm would simplify their land’s care, keep it available for farming when the lease runs out and allow it to continue to be passed on through the generations.

“We figured it was just one of those sorts of things that you could do — like buying a house or leasing a car. You could just do it on your own and not have to deal with all this complexity,” Donna said. For her and her husband, the desire to farm the sun on their land is a simple matter of property rights. They and other landowners want to maximize the profit they make from their fields without having to sell it off or break it up. It’s their land. They should use it as they see fit.

That was five years ago. When word of the proposed solar farm became known, neighbors who had been friends for decades suddenly became bitter enemies. “This opposition doesn’t seem to be concerned about property rights for anybody but themselves,” said Donna.

The Internet Makes It Easy To Bash Renewables

The roads in town are now festooned with signs that proclaim, “County Commissioners. Protect Our Quality Of Life. Stop industrial solar from destroying our thriving community, businesses, farmland, wildlife, and property values.” That link actually leads to a Google search page with multiple urls, among them Citizens For Responsible Solar. Is there a link between Kansas Responsible Solar and Citizens For Responsible Solar? You are free to make up your own mind on that.

A year ago, NPR and Floodlight reported that Citizens for Responsible Solar is part of a growing backlash against renewable energy in rural communities across the United States. The group, which was started in 2019 and appears to use strategies honed by other activists in campaigns against the wind industry, has helped local groups fighting solar projects in at least 10 states including Ohio, Kentucky and Pennsylvania, according to its website.

“I think for years, there has been this sense that this is not all coincidence. That local groups are popping up in different places, saying the same things, using the same online campaign materials,” says Michael Burger, executive director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University.

Citizens for Responsible Solar seems to be a well-mobilized “national effort to foment local opposition to renewable energy,” Burger adds. “What that reflects is the unfortunate politicization of climate change, the politicization of energy, and, unfortunately, the political nature of the energy transition, which is really just a necessary response to an environmental reality.”

Citizens for Responsible Solar was founded in an exurb of Washington, D.C. by a longtime political operative named Susan Ralston who worked in the White House under President George W. Bush and still has deep ties to power players in conservative politics. Ralston tapped conservative insiders to help set up and run Citizens for Responsible Solar. She also consulted with a longtime activist against renewable energy who once defended former President Donald Trump’s unfounded claim that noise from wind turbines can cause cancer.

When Ralston was launching the group, a consulting firm she owns got hundreds of thousands of dollars from the foundation of a leading GOP donor who is also a major investor in fossil fuel companies. It’s unclear what the money to Ralston’s firm was used for. Ralston has previously denied that Citizens for Responsible Solar received money from fossil fuel interests.

Misinformation About Renewables Proliferates

“This is so far off from being right, I don’t even have words. You will be affecting over 200 homeowners and 1,200 souls with one project,” Lisa Huppe of Edgerton, Kansas told USA Today. “We are not against solar energy. However, when it comes to utility scale facilities in the agricultural communities of rural Johnson County, it’s the wrong choice. If you allow this to happen, commissioners, you will devalue the property and destroy the lives that we have spent years building here and threaten our health and well-being.”

Many local residents who attend public hearings wear T-shirts that read “County Commissioners: Protect our Quality of Life. Let us help you draft regulations that stop INDUSTRIAL SOLAR.” Now, let me ask you a question. Who, exactly, will be drafting those regulations? Lisa Hoppe? How about Pam Ferguson of Eudora, Kansas who told USA Today, “We stand to lose the character of our communities, with a transition from agricultural to industrial use. Developers want you to think that we need to turn our state into a landscape of black glass and towering windmills. And if you do so, the planet will be ruined.”

“Solar and wind power need to be sited responsibly, away from places like Johnson County which have lots of people in them,” said Carrie Brandon, chairperson for Douglas County/Johnson County Kansans for Responsible Solar. “We realize that renewable energy is needed to offset oil and coal. But we have brilliant people on our planet who are constantly coming up with new energy inventions. Haste makes for waste. We can be smart about it and not just go all in on blanketing rural areas and taking agricultural land out of our inventory.”

Do any of those statements strike you as coming straight out of the Citizens For Responsible Solar playbook? The last time a group with “Citizens” in its name became prominent, the US Supreme Court decided on a whim that corporations should be free to spend as much money on getting people elected as they wanted. Since then, the rich have gotten a lot richer and we the people have to work three jobs to pay the bills. Beware of those who hide behind the word “Citizens” to disguise their nefarious deeds.

The Takeaway

The internet promises to set information free. And while that has happened to a large extent, it has also set misinformation, disinformation, propaganda, lies, distortions, and half truths free as well. Thanks to the power of algorithms, that flood of negative information can be unleashed at the whim of powerful forces with an agenda that may or may not benefit the community as a whole. As Mark Twain once said, “What you don’t know won’t hurt you near as much as what you do know that t’ain’t true.”

We either transition to renewables like wind and solar or we cease to exist as a species. Simple as that. There won’t be any bucolic farming communities when they are all underwater or parched by drought. And those smug people who worry about their way of life and an influx of outsiders will be less than pleased when they are the ones pulling up stakes and moving elsewhere to escape the ravages of an altered climate.

Rocking on the front porch with Carrie Brandon while she waits for someone else to come up with a solution to an overheating planet won’t be such fun when the crops are all dead in the field and Kansas becomes a lake — or a desert.

Humans have an almost limitless capacity to kick the can down the road. The British call it “muddling through.” Nobody wants to admit we are already in the midst of a climate emergency and things are about to get a lot worse. But still the nattering nabobs of negativism think they can wish the problem away. We don’t need renewables. We don’t need electric cars. This headlong rush into the future is just too much for people to deal with.

Don’t look up, people, and everything will be fine. On not.

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new."

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