Solar panels make money in rural America. They don’t always make friends.

By The Christian Science Monitor

In farmland west of Flint, Michigan, workers are finishing up a huge solar power project that occupies almost 3 square miles of land. The predicted energy will be enough to power about 35,000 homes.

But here in Shiawassee County, the attitude of many locals is summed up in the message on signs planted near their driveways: “NO solar farms.”

The rise of renewable energy promises economic gains for rural America. But that doesn’t mean everyone welcomes the shift. We visit one Michigan county where active opposition has been growing.

“They’re ugly,” says Jim Sheridan, who lives across the road from a portion of the new project. 

Beyond aesthetics, some locals say climate concerns are overblown and that solar power is still a tenuous, expensive technology, despite its widespread feasibility. Others lament that the new project will deliver its power outside the immediate region. 

The turmoil here symbolizes an emerging tension in rural America between addressing climate change – a goal most U.S. citizens support – and age-old “not in my backyard” tendencies rooted in long-standing land-use traditions. 

Ray Gallagher, an elevator installer whose rented farmhouse is almost completely surrounded by solar panels, is among a younger generation that is less critical of the shifts. 

“This is Shiawassee County,” Mr. Gallagher says. “The old farmers – they don’t like change. But times are changing.”

Before the end of the year, a colossal, 1,800-acre solar farm will begin delivering its full stream of power from farm fields west of Flint, Michigan. It’s the largest solar installation in the state, by far, and a key driver toward Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s goal to decarbonize the Midwestern state’s electrical grid, which is still dominated by coal. 

The problem with the project: Many locals hate it. 

“We’re sick of these ridiculous-looking panels. We don’t like them,” says Jim Sheridan. He lives across the road from the installation in Hazelton Township and leads its local government as supervisor. 

The rise of renewable energy promises economic gains for rural America. But that doesn’t mean everyone welcomes the shift. We visit one Michigan county where active opposition has been growing.

“First of all, they’re ugly,” he says. 

In mid-Michigan, economic development chiefs view solar panels and wind turbines as key to diversifying local economies, which are largely dependent on agriculture and manufacturing. Developers, in turn, have been lured by an ample supply of land, proximity to customers in urban centers, and incentives. The area has seen a boom in renewable-energy projects, and more are being planned – although community leaders are vowing resistance. 

The turmoil here symbolizes an emerging tension in rural America between addressing climate change – a goal most U.S. citizens support – and age-old “not in my backyard” tendencies rooted in concerns about aesthetics and land-use traditions. 

Earlier this year, the state’s largest single-phase wind farm began operating 55 miles northwest of Hazelton Township, despite the protests of some area residents who didn’t want to see, or hear, wind turbines. Workers are now finishing up the huge Assembly Solar Project, which occupies almost 3 square miles of land across Shiawassee County. The company behind the project – Brooklyn-based Ranger Power in New York – says the array will generate 239 megawatts of power, or enough to power about 35,000 homes. 

Most locals interviewed by the Monitor aren’t feeling the benefits of the low-carbon power installation. Some said climate concerns are overblown and that solar power is still a tenuous, expensive technology, despite its widespread feasibility. Several residents were irked that the Assembly project will deliver power outside the immediate area, including the nearby state capital, Lansing. 

Many also doubt the talking point that Assembly will also generate ample local tax revenue. County officials did not provide expected revenue figures, despite repeated requests. Ranger Power says the project will generate up to $25 million in property tax revenue over the next 25 years. 

A new zoning board

Under Mr. Sheridan’s tenure as supervisor, Hazelton Township recently enacted a one-year ban on new solar projects within its limits. The small community is also forming its own zoning board to approve – or deny – commercial-scale solar farms.

The Shiawassee County planning commission approved Assembly in early 2019. Officials didn’t recall hearing much opposition as they considered Ranger Power’s plans. Solar farms are generally considered less intrusive than wind turbines, which are often controversial because they dominate local landscapes. 

Attitudes changed during construction. As the project neared completion this spring. Hazelton Township resident Rex Wheeler, deciding he’d had enough, began distributing thousands of lawn signs that now pepper country roads for miles around. 

“NO solar farms,” the red-and-white signs read. 

Mr. Wheeler, a prominent businessman who runs a trucking company, says he’s lived in Hazelton Township his entire life. He owns 240 acres – land he says Ranger Power asked to lease.

Like Mr. Sheridan, who counts him as a friend, Mr. Wheeler sees a number of problems with the array of solar panels. He says it “looks terrible,” and that in his view, the land should continue producing soybeans and corn. He believes Ranger Power held “secret meetings” with landowners when acquiring leases – an assertion the company disputes – and that “the government is pushing way too hard and too fast on green energy.” 

Jim Sheridan, supervisor of Hazelton Township, Michigan, helped institute a one-year ban on new commercial-scale solar projects. He lives across the road from a portion of the Assembly Solar Project.

Mr. Wheeler and other opponents are quick to acknowledge that some locals are reaping the benefits from Assembly: the farmers who leased, or sold, their land. Agricultural groups, such as the Michigan Agri-Business Association, say farmers can reap much-needed income by leasing land for renewable energy projects.  

Rich Slovak, who farms soybeans and corn, is among those who are gaining. He sold almost 115 acres of land to Assembly, he says. On a recent rainy Friday, he surveyed the solar panels that border his land and stretch as far as the eye can see to the south and west. 

The developer’s offer was “once in a lifetime,” he says. But he understands why so many people are resisting the solar farm. 

“It doesn’t benefit them,” he says. 

Ray Gallagher lives just down the road from Mr. Slovak. His rented farmhouse is now almost completely surrounded by solar panels, but he’s ambivalent. An elevator installer, he climbs the narrow ladder of a nearby grain silo to dizzying heights for a bird’s-eye view of the construction progress. It’s almost finished up.

Mr. Gallagher and Mr. Slovak, who are in their 30s, said a generational divide is apparently fueling opposition to the project. 

“This is Shiawassee County. The old farmers – they don’t like change. But times are changing,” Mr. Gallagher says. 

How big a threat to renewable power?

In Shiawassee County, the swelling “anti-movement,” as Mr. Sheridan calls it, has produced mixed results. In 2018, developers pulled out of a wind power project after fierce community resistance. This year, a Colorado-based developer is moving ahead with plans to build a much smaller solar project in nearby Caledonia Charter Township. Some residents in other townships are also calling for moratoria on new solar projects. 

And Mr. Wheeler’s one-man campaign has become something of an inspiration for like-minded residents in nearby hamlets. Mr. Sheridan and other township officials say they field calls from concerned residents across the state. 

It’s unclear whether more community engagement will threaten Michigan’s push to build up its renewable energy capacity. At minimum, officials expect that zoning commission hearings on proposed projects will continue to be crowded.

So far, any opposition hasn’t stalled statewide momentum. The number of utility-scale solar installations in Michigan has dramatically spiked in the past two years, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association. Regulators are approving more wind and solar projects each year. Climate advocates note the state has a very long way to go; renewable energy makes up only about 15% of Michigan’s power mix.

Ben Sonnega, a renewable energy advocate with Environment America, says the lesson from Shiawassee County is that locals didn’t feel included in the conversation when officials approved Assembly’s construction. That’s a mistake, he says. 

“It’s not always the clearest process. That’s on the elected officials and, I think in this case, on the developers,” he says. 

A spokesperson for Ranger Power said in an email the company knocked on neighbors’ doors for about seven months to get the word out and otherwise takes a “community-first approach to all our projects.”

To Justin Horvath, CEO of the Shiawassee Economic Development Partnership, the process worked as it should have. After hearing concerns, Ranger Power agreed to implement several community demands, like growing a visual buffer of vegetation around the project’s rim and maintaining the road. Those conditions haven’t been met yet because the project is still in construction, he says. 

“My hope is that some – it won’t be all – that some of the concern will be resolved when the project is done,” Mr. Horvath says. 

For his part, Mr. Sheridan thinks renewable projects will gobble up the region’s farmland. He just doesn’t think he’ll live long enough to see that day.

For now, he’s tilted his chair on the front porch away from the solar farm, so he doesn’t have to look at it as much.