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Why the pushback against more renewable energy infrastructures?


Reining in climate change requires building a lot more renewable energy infrastructure. But across the country, there's much opposition to those projects, and often that pushback comes from local environmentalists. NPR's Julia Simon reports.

JULIA SIMON, BYLINE: Amherst - not Am-hurst (ph) - Mass., is a town of highly educated people who speak their mind.

DWAYNE BREGER: There's a saying in Amherst that only the H is silent, meaning that people like to voice their opinions.

SIMON: Dwayne Breger is with UMass Amherst. He says the town pretty much agrees climate change is here. But as for where to put larger solar projects that would cut emissions, that's where opinions split. On one side are people like Janet McGowan.

JANET MCGOWAN: It just seems really odd to me to cut down a forest to put up a solar facility.

SIMON: McGowan, a lawyer and mediator, says she's not anti-solar, but she worries about losing the town's forests and farmland to new solar projects.

MCGOWAN: My concern is if you build a solar array on a farm, that's sort of taken out of production.

SIMON: Then there's her neighbor down the road, Steven Roof.

STEVEN ROOF: The evidence is clear, and it has been for decades. We have to stop burning fossil fuels.

SIMON: Roof's an environmental science professor at Hampshire College who takes students to the Arctic to see the effects of global warming. He worries fears about conserving farms and forests could lead Amherst to enact restrictive regulations that limit the ability to build solar and reduce emissions.

ROOF: If we don't turn to renewable energy and stop burning fossil fuels in 10 or 15 years, our ecosystems are going to be ravaged from climate change.

SIMON: Disagreements over solar between environmentalists aren't unique to Amherst. A new report from Columbia University identified more than a dozen solar projects that faced opposition from environmentalists. In Amherst, conservation concerns have already delayed solar. The town sustainability director, Stephanie Ciccarello, recalls a proposed solar array on a landfill.

STEPHANIE CICCARELLO: A pair of nesting grasshopper sparrows were identified at the south landfill location.

SIMON: Because the birds are endangered, the town ultimately put the solar array on another landfill. It took seven years. Now, as the town writes regulations for where to locate solar, many, like McGowan, are pushing to keep solar primarily on the built environment like school buildings and commercial rooftops.

MCGOWAN: Like, why are we putting solar on farmland and not on, you know, Walmart and Target?

SIMON: But while solar on rooftops will be part of the energy transition, larger solar projects on the ground like community or utility-scale solar can be a lot cheaper. Jesse Jenkins, an energy professor at Princeton University, says the U.S. will need a lot more renewable electricity as we replace things like coal and gas plants and as we turn to electric cars, electric heat pumps.

JESSE JENKINS: We can do that if we scale up both distributed and utility-scale solar. But we're not going to get there with rooftops alone.

SIMON: There are ways to settle conservation disputes over solar, according to a new report from the Nature Conservancy - elevating solar over farmland to keep it in use, over pollinator-friendly plants for bees, engaging the community a lot. But Michael Gerrard, environmental law professor at Columbia University, says we've run out of time to save everything we want to save. Had we listened to climate scientists decades ago, maybe we wouldn't be in this place.

MICHAEL GERRARD: But society all around the world has delayed, and we are now at a point where we have to swallow hard, put some of these wind and solar facilities in imperfect places, unfortunately kill some birds. But there's no other way around it.

SIMON: Back in Amherst, Breger says he hopes the new solar regulations will be careful but not overly restrictive. The town hopes to have the regulations done by the end of the summer.

Julia Simon, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Julia Simon
Julia Simon is the Climate Solutions reporter on NPR's Climate Desk. She covers the ways governments, businesses, scientists and everyday people are working to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. She also works to hold corporations, and others, accountable for greenwashing.