In this week’s episode, host Daniel Raimi talks with Sarah Mills, a researcher at the University of Michigan, about rural communities in the Great Lakes region and their perspectives on local renewable energy projects. Mills and Raimi discuss how rural communities tend to receive and perceive renewables projects, why large-scale projects often face opposition, and the extent to which outside interests may be fostering local opposition.
Listen to the Podcast
- Local residents worry about how renewables will change the appearance of the landscape: “What underlies most of the opposition to wind and solar—and this is, again, the truism about opposition to land use change in general—is aesthetic arguments. People nearby are worried about their property values and that a large wind or solar farm is going to change the character of their community.” (8:24)
- Rural communities are skeptical of the tax credits for renewable energy in recent legislation: “There’s often a perception that the government picking winners and losers isn’t appropriate in a lot of the communities where I am, or that these are signs that some big developers are getting rich off of the project on the backs of local communities.” (19:57)
- Opposition to land use changes tends to come from a small, vocal group: “This is not just a renewable-energy thing; it’s also true for so many of our land use decisions. I sit on the planning commission in the city of Ann Arbor, and it’s odd for us to get more than 15 people, for example, at a particular meeting. But when you have 15 voices that are all opposed to a project in a city of 110,000, you know that it is a small part of the electorate—but, at the same time, they’re the ones that are showing up. Those are the only voices that we’re hearing.” (23:26)
Top of the Stack
- Rural Review newsletter
The Full Transcript
Daniel Raimi: Hello and welcome to Resources Radio, a weekly podcast from Resources for the Future. I’m your host, Daniel Raimi.
Today we talk with Dr. Sarah Mills, a researcher and lecturer at the University of Michigan Graham Sustainability Institute and the School for Environment and Sustainability. As domestic climate policy seeks to accelerate wind and solar deployment, one key question is whether local communities will welcome these projects into their rural landscapes. Sarah has been studying this question for years and will share her expertise on the pros and cons of building renewables in rural regions, why large-scale projects sometimes face fierce opposition, how widespread the phenomenon is, and the extent to which outside interests may be fostering local opposition. Stay with us.
Dr. Sarah Mills from the University of Michigan—welcome back to Resources Radio.
Sarah Mills: Thanks for having me back, Daniel.
Daniel Raimi: Sarah, you’ve been on the show before, but it’s been a couple years. So can you remind our listeners how you got interested in working on energy and environmental issues?
Sarah Mills: I have a nonlinear path. I decided, after taking an environmental ethics course my senior year of college, that I didn’t want to be an engineer. I wanted to be an environmental ethicist. I went straight into a masters in engineering for sustainable development and then worked for some time for the ENERGY STAR program at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in their sustainability science program.
But I quit all of that in 2009 to move to South Sudan. I was newly married, and my husband was setting up electricity cooperatives there. I did a bunch of odd jobs so that I didn’t have a part-time husband. I took up being the town’s planner, because, when they were moving to being a new country, they were moving from communal land ownership to private land ownership.
When it was time to come back home to Michigan and start a family, I applied to PhD programs in rural land use planning. That’s not energy; I guess there’s a tangential environmental bent to that; but I wanted to do something that would help my hometown. Driving up north to my in-laws’ cottage, I saw wind farms that were being touted as farmland preservation.
That was my dissertation. The rest is history. In retrospect, it seems to all make sense, but this is how I find myself doing the work that I do: looking at the intersection of energy technology, which I understand from my time in engineering and rural communities and land use, which is what my PhD is in.
Daniel Raimi: We’re going to touch on a lot of those aspects of your training. I’d forgotten about your South Sudan time, so thank you for reminding me.
One thing that I’ve been thinking a lot is that your ears have probably been burning lately. I feel like, almost every day, when I’m talking to someone about renewable energy and the energy transition, folks are talking about how large-scale renewable energy projects are received and perceived by the local communities that host them. I always say to people, “Do you know about Sarah Mills? Do you know about what Sarah Mills does?”
To get us started, why has this particular topic of local perceptions of renewable energy become so important so recently?
Sarah Mills: Right now, community acceptance is the barrier to getting more renewables or any kind of energy infrastructure deployed. It used to be that the barrier was cost. You needed supportive state or federal policies to make renewables more cost-competitive with fossil fuels, or you needed those state or federal policies to require utilities to procure them.
That’s not the case anymore, both because we have had supportive federal and state policies, but also because the cost of wind and solar has been plummeting. Utilities are running the numbers in their integrated resource plans and finding that renewables are the best deal for their customers.
So, you have wind and solar developers going to communities to propose a project, and, many times, they are being met with skepticism or outright hostility. It’s not in every community that there’s opposition. More renewables came online last year than the year before, and 2022 is expected to be a banner year—but there could be even more wind and solar going online if we didn’t have so many communities saying no.
Daniel Raimi: When you look at those projections of where we might need to go to get to net-zero goals by 2050, let’s say, the scale of build-out becomes that much more rapid.
Sarah Mills: Absolutely.
Daniel Raimi: You have spent a lot of time in community meetings, primarily in Michigan, but perhaps elsewhere, listening to folks voice their perspectives about wind and solar development. In general, do you hear more pro or con voices in those meetings, and what are the most common themes that emerge that people refer to when they’re expressing their views?
Sarah Mills: Most of my in-the-trenches, in-community experience has been in Michigan, but I’ve compared notes with folks in other places, and I think the Michigan experience isn’t all that exceptional.
It’s definitely more con voices than proponents. That’s the case not just for renewables. As a land use planner, I can say that’s the case for any development project. Folks often organize to oppose something new being built in their community rather than to support something new. Maybe in the housing space we have the “Yes In My Backyard” movement, and maybe we’ll see that come to renewables, but we haven’t seen that yet.
The pro arguments that folks give that are effective are about economic opportunity. There’s economic opportunity for the landowners who host wind turbines or solar panels on their property. Even more effective is talking about the community-wide economic opportunity, because wind and solar farm owners pay property taxes in most states that go to local communities, or there’s some other kind of community-benefits arrangements in states that benefit more than individual land owners. There also are compelling arguments on the pro side about property rights, but that that can cut both ways.
On the con side, or the anti-renewables side, there are a bunch of ideas or things that get brought up, but most of them boil down to either concerns about health impacts or aesthetics. We’re seeing arguments related to health on both wind and solar, but most of those aren’t supported by the health research. The reason that they get brought up is because zoning in most states is supposed to protect public health, safety, and general welfare. If you can make a health-based argument, those arguments tend to hold more weight, because that’s what the law is supposed to protect.
I think what underlies most of the opposition to wind and solar—and this is, again, the truism about opposition to land use change in general—is aesthetic arguments. People nearby are worried about their property values and that a large wind or solar farm is going to change the character of their community.
Daniel Raimi: You mentioned the lack of evidence on health concerns. Is there strong evidence one way or the other on property values?
Sarah Mills: You’ll have to invite Ben Hoen someday to be on your show, because he’s at the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab and has done the most definitive work on wind property-value impacts. He has an update to that study and also a property value impact study for solar that’s nationwide. Both of them are under review right now, but I heard the early pre-peer-reviewed version at a conference, and they are starting to find that there is some small impact on nearby property values for both technologies that is most evident right after the project gets billed and that dissipates over time. But there is some evidence.
This has been true for a while in the literature from Europe, where there are wind property-value declines, but now we’re starting to pick that up in the United States, as well.
Daniel Raimi: How, if at all, have you been seeing perspectives and arguments change over time?
Sarah Mills: I have evidence from research that I did last summer that opposition to wind is increasing over time. We have some quantitative evidence, but we find that it’s entirely explained by wind projects moving into communities that are more predisposed to dislike wind. Wind developments have been moving closer to areas where people have vacation homes or where there are fewer farmers around. Farmers tend to be pretty supportive of wind energy. Effectively, the low-hanging-fruit places have largely been developed, or their transmission capacities have been tapped out. We do see evidence of increased opposition over time.
On solar, developers have underestimated what the response would be to the big solar projects that are starting to be proposed now. I’m going to give my caveat that my lens is through the middle of the country in the Great Lakes region, and in this part of the country, we are seeing a sea change in the scale of solar projects.
A couple of years ago, most of the utility-scale solar projects were under 5 megawatts. The biggest project in the Great Lakes states was about 100 megawatts. The average solar project in Michigan’s portion of the MISO queue right now is 170 megawatts. We have some projects that are being proposed that are 500 megawatts. That would cover 5–7 square miles of land, but it’s not all going to be contiguous; it’s going to stretch over a much larger landscape.
It’s true that you can’t see solar from as far away as you can see a 500- or 600-foot-tall wind turbine. But if your house is in the middle of that solar farm, you may be completely surrounded with fenced-off solar fields. I think that developers were not anticipating the negative responses that they are seeing to proposed solar farms.
Daniel Raimi: I was driving through southern Michigan a couple weeks ago, and I came to an intersection, and there were four or five homes within a one-block area that had these big signs that said “No to Large-Scale Solar.” Were you surprised by the proliferation of folks opposed to solar, given your extensive background on wind energy?
Sarah Mills: I wasn’t surprised, in part because I’ve learned from wind energy that different people respond differently to wind energy, because they’re living in a rural community for different reasons. Some people are there for the views. They bought a house in the country to get out into a rural area and see the deer in the field, and wind turbines changed that landscape. If you put solar panels on the cornfield nearby, and you’ve put a fence there so that the deer can’t get through the cornfield, it’s a similar response. It wasn’t so surprising to me.
What’s different is the ancillary impacts. I’ve got some work underway right now, because my PhD is in farmland preservation, on how wind and solar impacts farming and farmers. My work on wind energy finds that people with wind turbines on their property reinvest that revenue into their farm.
Right now, there’s not tons of farming happening underneath solar panels. There are ways that you can be compatible with agriculture—you can do some grazing—but we’re not growing corn and soybeans under solar panels. The impact of five square miles of land going from corn and soybeans to solar has on farm economies is something that I have a study on.
The impacts are very different. I’m hearing stories from farmers that this is their retirement strategy. They’re able to keep the land in the family, but it’s a lucrative way to retire. Others are diversifying their farm income with solar, so there are differences between wind and solar, even though there are some similarities, as well.
Daniel Raimi: There are also interesting analogies with oil and gas development, where I would say the majority of folks in rural communities are supportive of oil and gas coming in to diversify local economies that are dependent on agriculture, but there are also real impacts to the character of the community. In places with little experience of oil and gas in the past, the impacts on community character and community feeling have been some of the most important ones.
Let’s move from a descriptive conversation about what’s happening in the world and what you’re seeing to policy and advocacy questions. Can you give us a general sense of what role policy could be playing here? For example, do you think the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) and its expanded subsidies for clean energy might affect the way that local perceptions of these projects evolve over time?
Sarah Mills: I think that there are lots of good things that are happening or could happen with both IRA and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. In the siting space, various parts of both of those pieces of legislation are making funding available for remote or rural communities and, separately, for environmental justice communities to plan for renewables.
Lots of research indicates that community discussion about renewable energy before a developer shows up is a positive thing. They can have renewable development under their own terms. Being proactive is great. But now I’m going to say something specific about the expansion of the tax credits that I hope doesn’t get me in too much trouble: I don’t think that they win friends in communities that would host wind or solar farms.
They’re largely about benefiting the developers. There’s not tons in them that require the developers to share the additional revenues or profitability that they have with the host community. There are provisions about labor and prevailing wages, and that certainly could benefit the folks in the areas where wind and solar farms are being built. But I have never been at a wind or solar meeting where anyone representing a local union showed up to speak in support of a project, and I’ve been in four or five dozen local meetings.
This is a researchable question, but I’m not sure how connected labor unions are in most of the rural communities where wind and solar farms are being proposed. I would love your take on that, too.
Instead, I think that the tax credits not only don’t win friends, but may be harmful. More often than not, when federal tax credits, state-level renewables requirements, renewable portfolio standards, or clean energy standards are brought up at a community meeting, they are almost exclusively brought up as a strike against a project by opponents. I don’t think that they’re the key reason that somebody is opposed to a proposed project, but they’re often brought into the meeting as proof that renewables are not cost-competitive.
I was at a meeting 10 days ago where state-level policy and federal tax credits came up. Until recently, I was able to say to people, “Listen, the tax credits are phasing out and our renewable portfolio standard here in Michigan expired in 2021.” But on IRA, I can’t say that anymore. And all eyes are on Michigan right now to see what our new Democratic trifecta is going to do with energy policy.
Daniel Raimi: For those of you outside the great state of Michigan, the “Democratic trifecta” refers to the fact that there is a Democratic governor, and, for the first time in 40 years, both state houses are under control of the Democrats.
Can you flesh that out just a bit more, Sarah? Take us to the next level on the perception that subsidies enable wind and solar to happen because they’re not otherwise cost-competitive. Why does that affect people’s view on those projects themselves? How does that affect them and make them become more negative toward the deployment of the project?
Sarah Mills: Some of this is just throwing spaghetti on the wall and seeing what sticks. But there’s often a perception that the government picking winners and losers isn’t appropriate in a lot of the communities where I am, or that these are signs that some big developers are getting rich off of the project on the backs of local communities.
It’s this sense that government, either by requiring renewables or by giving subsidies to developers, is benefiting those big businesses and not the people in a rural community. I don’t think that this is the primary reason that a community would say no, but it gets brought up at least a majority of the time that I’m in a community where there’s already lots of contention.
Daniel Raimi: How reflective do you think the voices that you’re hearing in these meetings are of the broader community? You’ve already referred to this, where it’s typically the voices who are opposed to a project that come to the community meetings to voice that opposition. Is there good data on whether those negative voices that you are hearing in community meetings are reflective of the community, kind of writ large, where wind and solar projects are increasingly being developed?
Sarah Mills: There’s not great data about this. I have some survey research myself (that’s now a few years old) that the silent majority in the middle don’t feel strongly one way or the other on a project, but they’re not the people who show up to vote.
In this particular situation, I’d sent a survey to every landowner in a handful of local governments. In Michigan, our rural areas are governed by townships, which are a sub-county level of government. I sent the survey to 10 townships; on the survey I asked whether they would support having additional wind turbines built in their place. Five of those townships had a ballot referendum six months after I sent this survey. The ballot measure asked, “Shall we approve this additional wind farm that would be going in your township?”
I have survey data and the ballot data for the very same places, and my survey data finds a slight majority of folks who say that they would support additional wind turbines. At the ballot box, something like 63 percent voted no to the wind project.
More people took the survey than voted. Who’s showing up to vote? It’s not everybody; not everybody is showing up at the meetings. The other thing is that if you only take the people who said that they strongly support more wind turbines or strongly oppose more wind turbines on my survey, you get within two percentage points of the vote totals. So, it’s these people that don’t have a strong opinion one way or the other that aren’t showing up. Are the voices at the meetings reflective? No.
This is not just a renewable-energy thing; it’s also true for so many of our land use decisions. I sit on the planning commission in the city of Ann Arbor, and it’s odd for us to get more than 15 people, for example, at a particular meeting. But when you have 15 voices that are all opposed to a project in a city of 110,000, you know that it is a small part of the electorate—but, at the same time, they’re the ones that are showing up. Those are the only voices that we’re hearing.
Daniel Raimi: One thing that folks might be thinking about as they’re listening to this is the role that outside groups might be playing in stoking local opposition to renewables. I’ve heard whispers and rumors about this. I don’t know of any rigorous research on this topic. Are you seeing any organized efforts to organize rural communities against renewable energy projects from companies or organizations that might have an interest in delaying or preventing a transition to cleaner energy?
Sarah Mills: There are at least a few organized anti-renewables groups, and they mostly coordinate through Facebook. I don’t know how they’re funded, but I know they exist and are connected, because they have used—and in some situations misused—my research and circulated it through the different Facebook groups. I’m also sometimes at community meetings where members of this particular group that’s in Michigan show up. It exists.
At the same time, though, I don’t credit these organized groups with all of the opposition or the rise in opposition that we’re seeing. These groups only have power when they can find local people in a community who feel the same way that they feel. My sense is that there’s a whole bunch of homegrown opposition to projects by people who legitimately fear that wind and solar will negatively impact them. Most often, it’s a worry about property values or the quiet enjoyment of their own property. I think that there is some organized opposition, but I don’t think it’s fair to lay the blame of increased opposition specifically at their feet or credit them with it all.
Daniel Raimi: I have one more question before we go to our Top of the Stack segment. Most of your experience is centered around the Great Lakes region. Do you think these issues we’re talking about are broadly applicable across the United States, or are there pockets where the dynamic is extremely different? Can you talk about that regional variation a little bit?
Sarah Mills: I’m going to say the typical thing for a researcher: I can only say for sure what I know about Michigan, because that’s the place that I have studied. But, as I have been talking to people, other researchers, and developers in other parts of the country, it turns out that the observations that I have about how rural Michiganders respond to wind and big solar farm proposals are also common in New York, parts of North Carolina, Iowa, and Washington State.
Each of these places gives local governments different amounts of discretion, and there are some variations of politics, and there are certainly variations in the size of projects that are proposed or the landscapes that they’re proposed on. But I think that there is some sense of commonality across the country.
I’m working right now with a brilliant PhD student, Karl Hoesch, along with a group of colleagues at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab and Michigan State on a nationwide survey of solar farm neighbors to both learn what these folks like and dislike about the solar farm and the process that got that solar farm to the community. We’re also trying to disentangle if there are regional differences or something that we can say nationwide. Stay tuned for that.
Daniel Raimi: We definitely will, because I think this issue is going to become more important as we build out clean energy and transmission around the United States. We appreciate you coming on and helping us learn what you’re seeing out in the field.
We’d love to close it out with our last question that we ask all of our guests, which is to ask you to recommend something that you’ve read, watched, heard, or absorbed through the atmosphere that you thought was great and would recommend to our audience. What’s at the top of your literal or your metaphorical reading stack?
Sarah Mills: I am going to point you to the Rural Review, which is an every-so-often news roundup of all sorts of stories, journal articles, and podcasts. It covers all things rural. It is not exclusively energy or environment, but, because energy and land conservation are big topics in lots of rural communities, these topics come up all the time. It’s part of the Rural Reconciliation Project, which is run out of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. This is one of the newsletters that comes into my inbox that I check out, because I’m always learning something new from various rural scholars and in lots of accessible formats.
Daniel Raimi: Sarah Mills, from the University of Michigan—thank you so much for coming on Resources Radio. It’s been a fascinating conversation.
Sarah Mills: Thank you so much for having me.
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