Rural backlash threatens clean energy transition


Elected commissioners in Clinton County are on the verge of approving a one-year moratorium on renewable energy developments, which would prohibit 11 of the county’s 16 townships from entertaining applications for large-scale wind or solar projects. It’s the latest manifestation of the ever-popular “Not In My Backyard” syndrome, and it’s currently sweeping rural communities across the state. The trend is a clear and present danger to Michigan’s successful transition from fossil fuels to renewable clean energy.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s Michigan Healthy Climate Plan sets out an ambitious goal to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. A group of Michigan Democrats led by State Sen. Sam Singh recently called for an even more aggressive timetable of net zero by 2035 — little more than a decade from now. But achieving either goal is likely to be a tall task thanks to scores of NIMBY-driven opponents, who are managing to put a stick in the spokes of utility-scale renewable energy developments in rural communities across the state.

We understand the aesthetic concerns associated with massive wind farms that dot the landscape with towering propellers, but it’s something most people can learn to live with given the associated benefits. And there are successes: DTE, Michigan’s largest investor-owned utility, just cut the ribbon on its new $300 million, 225-megawatt Meridian Wind project that cuts across three townships in two counties near Saginaw. The wind farm is expected to generate enough clean energy to power 78,000 homes, which is nearly equivalent to every household in Flint, Saginaw, Bay City and Midland combined.

From our perspective, widespread and growing opposition to utility-scale solar development on Michigan’s farmland is the most disconcerting trend. Local objections range from not unreasonable aesthetic considerations, which are readily addressed with setback and screening requirements, to the utterly false and plainly absurd: that Michigan will lose most of its prime farmland, or that solar panels cause poisonous runoff, and, of course, what’s the big deal about climate change anyway?

The truth is that utility-scale solar will only utilize a tiny fraction of Michigan’s agricultural land. A bushel of compelling reasons favor the expansion of solar farms, which are, in fact, good for the environment, for farmers and their land, and for the communities that agree to host them. Starting with the obvious, solar farms generate emissions-free electricity that helps reduce our reliance on fossil fuels to power our homes and businesses. When planted with native grasses and flowering species important to pollinators, solar farms help support ecosystems that increase biodiversity and provide habitat for wildlife.

The land beneath the solar panels gets an extended break from intensive agriculture, allowing the soil to regenerate important nutrients and minerals, making it even more viable for agricultural use after the solar panels are decommissioned and removed.

Local communities that welcome utility-scale solar also stand to gain millions in long-term tax revenues they can use to support schools, enhance public safety, fix roads or build new recreational facilities.

For small farmers and their families, leasing land for solar can be a financial lifeline in a business where annual yields and market prices can be unpredictable, the cost of inputs like fuel and fertilizer continue to rise, and competition from corporate-owned megafarms and foreign growers can cut profit margins to the quick. By going solar, farmers can make anywhere from three to 20 times the per-acre revenue they can generate by growing corn or soybeans, with a lot less work and financial overhead.

We think it’s hypocritical that the biggest detractors of solar farms, who, generally speaking, don’t like the government telling them what to do, are more than happy to tell their rural neighbors what they can do with their land. And it’s ironic that by opposing solar farms, a long-term but still temporary land use, they could instead end up with yet another permanent, cookie cutter residential subdivision carved into their bucolic rural landscape.

Governor Whitmer and the new legislative Democratic majority should start building a sea wall against the rising tide of NIMBY opposition to renewable energy developments in rural Michigan. We’re generally supportive of local control but recognize that there are times when the public interest is more important than parochial preferences. We believe the need to build out Michigan’s renewable energy infrastructure outweighs local objections that often are based on misinformation and irrational fears.

While we’re not fans of eminent domain, where the government seizes private property for a compelling public purpose, we urge state leaders to get to work on uniform standards that enable renewable energy developments to move forward, including a prohibition on counties and townships imposing endless moratoriums while they “study” the issue. If we’re going to have a real chance to meet Michigan’s carbon reduction goals, action is needed now to remove unreasonable local roadblocks to utility-scale wind and solar energy development.


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