The Dark Side of Renewable Energy

February 20 2017

I am on the front lines of renewable energy development in the US. Think of those “flyover” states of the Midwest where hundreds of wind turbines and solar panels are strewn about. Those are what I am responsible for, and spend years working on. Picking the site, talking to the farmers, feasibility studies, permits from every agency imaginable, people standing in fields counting birds, a place to send the power, and people to provide the financing. Someone has to do it.

These projects (and some might argue, the future of world) distill down to my ability to build lasting relationships with hundreds of people who I may not agree with politicly, but must find a common ground with. Some welcome me with open arms, others chase me away. Building enough trust with a fourth generation farmer to sign his wind rights and sliver of his land away to me for the next 25 years is easier said than done. Sure, there is money involved, but you are often dealing with emotions, not rational economics.

Approaching rural, conservative farmers to talk about renewable energy is an interesting job. These are people that moved out here and never left, either by choice or lack of opportunity. This is solidly Trump’s America, where Fox News reigns supreme. The land of people who shrug at global warming, and have nightmares of terrorist Muslims flowing in and out of our swiss cheese borders. Don’t tread on me and my guns. I’m only slightly exaggerating. What they really want to see is their idea of the golden age of America resurrected. I should note that I’m a 20-something city kid who prefers skinny jeans, universal health care, and artisanal coffee over camouflage, Jesus, and Busch Light. But I did grow up in the south and own cowboy boots, so I can blend in.

I work a lot in South Dakota, what many consider the exact kind of state where wind energy should reign supreme. There are 94 acres of land for every one person in the area where there is currently an ongoing battle of residents opposed to a wind farm (Manhattan is approximately 14,000 acres for a total of .0089 acres per person). The majority of those I interact with are kind, humble, and fascinating people. But the idea of change is scary, and incites swift and strong opposition in many others. The internet definitely doesn’t help. A big, bad company coming into their town to tell them what to do. Another government handout for a technology that doesn’t work. You’re killing the birds. Think of our children. Our good Christian values. We didn’t move here to see these industrial machines dot our beautiful horizon. Just last week I was accused of “raping and pillaging the earth, prostituting my morals to make a quick dollar,” and asked “how I sleep at night knowing the destruction I bring.” That farmer sure had a way with words.

The good news, there are people out here trying every day to make a real difference. The bad news, there are not many places left in this country where it is “easy” to develop large scale renewable energy projects. You may see headlines about the explosion of renewable energy and the increasing cost competitiveness of it, and that is true, but not without its asterisks.

It is easy to lose faith when all you hear are impassioned rants and pleas from people that think you are ruining their way of life, and don’t believe in what you’re doing. It is easy to feel torn when a project that will bring hundreds of jobs, hundreds of millions of dollars in investment, and millions of dollars in local economic development to an economically depressed area is met with such strong resistance. What I do know is there are good people everywhere you look, you just have to find the common ground.

Chicago, IL
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