Chittering Solar Farm.
N Chadwick/Creative Commons

Solar Energy is Hitting a Growth Spurt. So Is The Disinformation Around It.

Anti-renewable energy campaigns are nothing new in the Lone Star State. A new wave of disinformation could spell trouble for the state’s fledgling solar industry.

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A version of this story ran in the January / February 2021 issue.

David Dunagan doesn’t want a 760-acre solar power plant to be built across his fenceline. The Old Jackson Power Plant will replace farmland in Van Zandt County with gleaming, metal panels. Though the 127-megawatt plant will provide clean, renewable energy for some of the nearly 7.5 million residents in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex Dunagan has been organizing local landowners to stop it for the last year.

Generations of landowners have raised cattle or grown crops like hay and sweet potatoes in this slice of rural northeast Texas, and turning those fields into an industrial power plant isn’t an easy pill to swallow. One of Dunagan’s major worries is the environmental impact that the Old Jackson plant could have. “It’s literally in the middle of East Texas tornado alley,” he says. “There is a propensity for these facilities to get torn up, and the materials are scattered everywhere. These panels, there are several heavy metals used in thin layers,” he adds. “It’s been proven that these panels tend to leach over time, into the soil and water.”

Thing is, that hasn’t been proven. That’s because it’s not true. According to Wyatt Metzger, a scientist at the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory, there’s little truth to the leaching-panel claim. Concerns about what happens if panels are discarded improperly at the end of their 30-year lifespan, are legitimate, however. But the idea that inclement weather could turn a functioning solar farm into a Superfund site littered with lead and cadmium-laced debris has caught on across the country as solar energy developments take off.

It’s a talking point that Dunagan picked up from so-called experts such as Michael Shellenberger, a staunchly pro-nuclear environmentalist who’s called climate activists “alarmists.” It’s been repeated by a national group called Citizens for Responsible Solar, which presents itself as a grassroots coalition, but was formed by a Republican consultant in Virginia. The myth has been pushed by the Foundation for Economic Education and the benign-sounding Institute for Energy Research, both libertarian think tanks that have direct ties to billionaire fossil fuel executives and climate change denialists Charles Koch and David Padden. Koch and Padden fund the Heartland Institute, one of the most infamous climate denial groups.

In Bell County, 75 miles north of Austin, signs proclaiming “Say ‘No’ To Solar Farms” have popped up in opposition to a proposed 1,400-acre, 200-megawatt solar plant proposed by Virginia-based Apex. This summer, dozens of people voiced their opposition to a tax break for the project at a county commissioner’s court meeting. Maie Killian, a pediatrician who lives in Austin, was one of them—how would the plant affect her nearby family farm?

“We haven’t felt very informed about the hazards that are associated with solar farms,” she told  commissioners before laying out what she’d learned from the internet. “When these panels get broken or damaged, which will happen in Central Texas, because as we know we have bad weather, that stuff will leak into the soil and water.”

Head south to Bastrop County and you’ll hear the same concerns swirling in Rosanky, a small town on the outskirts of the scenic Hill Country where a planned 200-megawatt solar plant will cut across a handful of properties. “We have environmental concerns, because they’re projecting to have hundreds of thousands of panels and batteries,” one Rosanky landowner says over the phone. Her property line would border the proposed plant, and she declined to be named over privacy concerns. “They’re killing off all the vegetation, so it won’t hold back any run-off—what’s the impact of leaching when it rains? What will that do to our cattle tanks?”

Disinformation about renewable energy isn’t new. For decades, fossil fuel companies and conservative think tanks have painted wind turbines as a bird-killing, unreliable, and property-value damaging source of energy.

Disinformation about renewable energy isn’t new. For decades, fossil fuel companies and conservative think tanks have painted wind turbines as a bird-killing, unreliable, and property-value damaging source of energy. “We’re starting to see the same forces shift over, focusing on solar farms,” says Dave Anderson, a researcher with the Energy and Policy Institute who tracks fossil-fuel-funded disinformation about renewable energy. At the same time, solar energy is on the cusp of a growth spurt: Texas’ solar capacity is on track to grow by 150 percent this year.  A similar upward trajectory is expected next year.

Many of the state’s largest solar plants have been built in West Texas, where land is cheap and sun is plentiful. In many of these counties, landowners were already used to having pumpjacks and wind turbines on their sprawling ranches, so solar wasn’t very different. Now, as the price of solar technology has dropped drastically, it’s more feasible for solar companies to locate their plants closer to energy-consuming cities, says Josh Rhodes, a researcher at the University of Texas at Austin’s Energy Institute. In places like Van Zandt, Bell, or Wharton County, just outside of Sugar Land, developers will save on the cost of electric transmission from far West Texas. But here, residents aren’t as welcoming of the new, industrial developments.

“Wind and solar companies come in with their glamorous stories about how much tax money they’ll bring to our community, that they have what we want. I always tell people, ‘Don’t fall for their lies that they’re here to benefit you,’” says Cricia Ryan, a Wharton County resident who’s been organizing against renewables for years—first wind, and now solar. “We have a set of transmission lines in Wharton County, and [companies] want what we have,” she says—the land near those transmission lines that head straight to Houston.

Ryan has become something of a household name when it comes to grassroots organizing against wind and solar developments. When someone in Texas finds out that their neighbors are going to lease land to a utility-scale solar plant, they call Ryan. She’s even made appearances at the Texas Public Policy Foundation’s annual conferences, offering her first-hand account of dealing with renewable energy companies.

The Texas Public Policy Foundation, the state’s most prominent conservative think tank, has in recent years argued that tax breaks and subsidies which have long benefited fossil fuel and nuclear plants should be ended now that solar farms are snapping them up. Decades ago, tax code provisions like chapters 313 and 312 were set up by Republicans in the state legislature to incentivize companies to locate in Texas and create jobs in rural counties—but they have long been mismanaged by the state, providing tax benefits to companies that would have to located or expanded in Texas anyway.

According to data from the State Comptroller, almost every solar company that’s applied for a tax abatement has asked for the job creation requirement to be waived; it just doesn’t take that many people to maintain renewable energy plants. To many local residents, like Ryan in Wharton County, or Dunagan in Van Zandt, it’s insult on top of injury. “That’s one of my problems with 313,” Ryan says. “It can be a good thing, but renewable energy companies should not qualify—they do not bring in long-term jobs.”

These dealings aren’t unique to solar companies— for the most part, this is how nearly all corporations seek to cut costs. But the lack of transparency that these practices create has left space for disinformation and political propaganda to thrive, exploiting real misgivings about development.

On a balmy November evening in Bastrop County, residents gathered at the Rosanky Community Center to discuss how the solar plant proposed by the German company RWE Renewables could change their town. Residents were frustrated that they hadn’t heard about the project at all until the company showed up to ask for a tax break. RWE hadn’t answered any questions about safety measures along the two-lane road that would be clogged with trucks during construction, or how drastically the landscape would be altered if the project were completed. The plant in Bastrop County would mostly feed the energy needs of Austinites, providing little direct benefit to Rosanky. A representative from the solar company declined to provide a comment for this story.

Renewable energy firms will most likely continue to run into local opposition if they don’t try to engage local residents and stakeholders, says Varun Rai, the director of UT’s Energy Institute. “Over time, it becomes hard to sustain this detached push for development,” he says. And with coordinated propaganda against such developments, the challenges become steeper.

That’s been true of most infrastructure projects, and particularly unfamiliar ones. A decade ago, the state backed a multi-billion-dollar project to build transmission lines from West Texas to the more populous, eastern half of the state. Without that project, very little of the renewable energy generated in the west would make it to consumers. Initially, no one wanted the transmission lines to run through their own backyard, but it went forward largely because the state used its power of eminent domain.

“There’s a collective responsibility in the industry to build trust. Backlash can really add up and create difficulties,” Rai says. And the stakes are high, since  it’s crucial to develop clean energy to mitigate the effects of climate change.

Even if renewable power plants make better neighbors than coal plants or gas wells, there will still be resistance to clean energy projects. It turns out that if you never wanted an industrial neighbor in the first place, the falsehoods about them are a little too easy to believe.

Update: The original version of this story said that the state funded a transmission line project. We’ve updated the language to clarify that the state backed the project, but did not fund it. We regret the error. 

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