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HomeNewsInternational NewsSpecial Report: U.S. solar expansion stalled by rural land-use protests

Special Report: U.S. solar expansion stalled by rural land-use protests

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April 7 (Reuters) – The Solar Star project in California is among the largest solar energy facilities in the world, boasting 1.7 million panels spread over 3,000 acres north of Los Angeles. Its gargantuan scale points to an uncomfortable fact for the industry: a natural gas power plant 100 miles south produces the same amount of energy on just 122 acres.

The dynamic encapsulates the industry’s biggest obstacle to growth: Solar farms require huge amounts of land, and there’s a fast-growing movement, fueled by politicized social-media campaigns, to prevent solar developers from permitting new sites in rural America.

That’s a major problem for the transition away from fossil fuels to combat climate change. Solar currently makes up 3% of U.S. electricity supply and could reach 45% by 2050 to meet the Biden administration’s goals to eliminate or offset emissions by 2050, according to the Department of Energy. To get there, the U.S. solar industry needs a land area twice the size of Massachusetts, according to DOE. And not any land will do, either. It needs to be flat, dry, sunny, and near transmission infrastructure that will transport its power to market.

As solar developers propose new, often sprawling projects in places like Kansas, Maine, Texas, Virginia and elsewhere, local governments and activist groups are seeking to block them and often succeeding. They cite reasons ranging from aesthetics that would harm property values to fears about health and safety, and loss of arable land, farm culture, or wildlife habitat.

“This is increasingly one of the top barriers that we’re going to face,” said Steve Kalland, executive director of the North Carolina Clean Energy Technology Center, a research centre that supports clean energy development nationwide. “If we can’t get projects sited and deployed, then we’re going to have real problems on our hands.”

Officials at the White House and the Department of Energy, who are pushing for a rapid expansion of solar power, did not comment on the industry’s land-acquisition problems.

In most cases, the opposition to these projects is being organized on Facebook, where the number of pages devoted to blocking solar development has exploded in recent years. The pages air a mix of legitimate concerns, such as the loss of scenic vistas, tree removal, and soil erosion, with misinformation about climate change and alleged health hazards from solar electricity. The false claims include arguments that climate change is a hoax to groundless assertions that solar farms leach the carcinogen cadmium into the soil and nearby waterways when it rains, or that they rarely produce electricity.

Reuters identified 45 groups or pages on Facebook dedicated to opposing large solar projects, with names such as “No Solar in Our Backyards!” and “Stop Solar Farms.” Only nine existed prior to 2020, and nearly half were created in 2021. The groups together boast nearly 20,000 members.

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