The traditional energy resources of coal, oil and natural gas have powered the United States with admirable efficiency, and could do so for decades to come. But the political tide has turned against them, and every bad storm, drought, cold snap or heat wave is blamed on fossil fuels. The government, in turn, is knee-deep in tax incentives and other enticements to persuade homeowners and businesses to embrace renewable energy.
The thing to remember, though, is that tides go both ways.
President Biden recently announced an ambitious plan for the United States to produce nearly half its electricity by 2050 courtesy of the sun. As The Post reported: “The new Energy Department analysis shows how the United States can scale up production of solar panels, which now provide 3 percent of the nation’s electricity, to 45 percent over the next three decades. It would entail the United States doubling its installed solar power every year for the next four years, compared with 2020, and then doubling it again by 2030.”
Clean energy advocates say the goal is to rescue the planet from the negative impacts of greenhouse gas emissions and to stop abusing the earth’s ecosystem. It’s true that traditional energy involves carbon emissions and removing things from the earth. But, not incidentally, utilizing wind and solar requires adding things, namely wind turbines and solar panels.
The wind and the sun don’t create energy without devices to harness their power. Such structures are composed of manufactured materials including glass, plexiglass, silicone, wire and aluminum, and their placement requires land. Lots of land. Millions of acres, in fact. Just where is the land coming from to meet Biden’s far-reaching goals, especially as soon as 2030?
I wrote a couple of years ago about serving as a county commissioner in southern Ohio (a position I left upon moving out of county about a year ago) when talk of solar panels replacing corn and soybean crops first emerged. At the time, two companies were making agreements to acquire about 5,000 acres of farmland in Highland County alone to install 1.5 million solar modules. Neighboring Brown County was also in the solar project footprint.
For many struggling farmers, I noted, “the deals they were offered were a financial lifeline not only for them, but for their children and grandchildren.” There were some objections from neighboring farmers, but the benefits of payments mandated by state law from solar companies into the coffers of local government entities, including schools, seemed to tilt public opinion in solar’s favor.
Since then, two more projects have been proposed and are nearing approval, the Highland County auditor told me this week. Previously, state law allotted no authority to local government officials to stop them even if they were so inclined. But as solar projects have mushroomed locally and in other parts of Ohio, opposition has expanded as well. Yard signs and T-shirts opposing solar panels have become familiar sights.
Questions are growing about neighboring property values and environmental issues. What about responsible land practices such as plant maintenance, erosion protection and water runoff? When the solar fields are dismantled someday, will the soil be safe for reuse? Solar companies are providing answers, but trust is not always evident.
A public meeting in Highland County on the subject in May turned heated. One area resident who is also a clerk for the county commission seemed to speak for many when she said, “I think that citizens with skin in the game should have the authority to approve or disapprove these projects at a local level and not some panel of individuals in Columbus.” Similar opposition spread in rural areas in Ohio and elsewhere across the nation. Under pressure over the summer, the Ohio legislature passed a bill, signed by Gov. Mike DeWine (R), empowering local elected officials to reject, ban or restrict solar and wind projects.
The growing doubt nationwide among landowners and their neighbors over whether shiny solar modules are what they want sprouting from fields in their communities raises a question: How much land will be necessary to reach Biden’s goals? One estimate from Axion Power, a pro-solar site, suggests that meeting all U.S. electric demands using only solar energy would require 10 billion solar panels covering 21,913 square miles, or 14 million acres — an area larger than several of our states. It will take nearly half of that to reach Biden’s objective in the next nine years. Again, where’s all that property coming from, and at the cost of how much other land use or development? When it comes to land, as Mark Twain noted, they’re not making it anymore.
These obstacles may ultimately be resolved. Someday, scientists and engineers will almost certainly find a way to make solar modules more compact and efficient. In the meantime, we’ll still need reliable energy — meaning no one should be rushing to close the coal mines or dismantle the oil rigs anytime soon.