CSUS scholars identify roots of opposition to solar energy projects in Michigan

The "social solar gap" exists where there is regional resistance to solar energy projects, often driven by poor decision-making processes at project onset.

Row of solar panels in a green field on a sunny day.
Solar farm

A new paper authored by MSU Community Sustainability former graduate student, Jessica Crawford, and current faculty member, Douglas Bessette, and University of Michigan coauthor, Sarah Mills, evaluates the drivers of regional opposition to large-scale solar energy projects in Michigan. This research suggests the existence of a “solar social gap,” or regional social opposition to solar projects, in the state of Michigan.

Their paper entitled “Rallying the anti-crowd: Organized opposition, democratic deficit, and a potential social gap in large-scale solar energy” was published recently in the journal of Energy Research & Social Science. This research looked to establish if and why a social gap exists around large-scale solar energy projects. A social solar gap exists when there is a difference between the number of solar energy projects proposed and completed in a particular region, or if there is a difference in an individual’s support for solar energy in general or a specific solar project in their community.

The researchers interviewed residents in four Michigan communities that have proposed solar energy projects in development and found that two of the four communities significantly resisted the development of solar energy projects. The authors also identified that this opposition resulted from passionate, vocal residents, who while perhaps in the minority of individuals in their community, were better organized, communicated more and more quickly, and could be intimidating toward project supporters.

Lettered yard sign saying “No solar factory on green fields” leaning against a beige building.
Yard sign in protest of solar development

Looking at the drivers of this social solar gap, Crawford notes many similarities to the barriers found for wind energy projects.

Crawford says of these barriers, “While wind and solar energy projects have their own unique factors that can contribute to a social gap such as wildlife concerns for wind or agricultural land conversion concerns for solar, they also share one common driver: poor decision-making processes. Our research found that solar social gaps form primarily due to top-down decision-making methods that fail to incorporate citizen input and transparent communication. Recommendations for improved community engagement processes were shared with research participants, academics, and practitioners to spark action for future change.”

Bessette says of this work, “To mitigate climate change and its impacts, we must rapidly transition our energy system to rely on renewable energy, including both wind and solar. To do so however, we must develop solar projects on land that is often highly valued by communities, contributes positively to rural aesthetics and viewsheds, and contains prime farmland. Community residents often have legitimate concerns regarding the impacts of large-scale solar development. There is thus a complicated tradeoff between reducing emissions and ensuring equitable and optimal outcomes for the communities that experience solar development.”

As a result of their research, the authors recommend the need for solar developers to be more informative and transparent with the communities regarding their projects.

Thinking about best-practices in developing community support for solar projects, Crawford notes, “Meaningful and upfront decision-making strategies can make a difference in community acceptance of large-scale solar projects. Government officials and solar developers have a responsibility to actively involve citizens in solar project siting to improve the development process, better accommodate for local values, and close the solar social gap.”

Read the full article: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.erss.2022.102597

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