Americans say they don’t mind utility-scale solar. Why isn’t more getting built?

Americans say they don’t mind utility-scale solar. Why isn’t more getting built?
(A Dominion solar facility in Fauquier County, Virginia. Credit: Chesapeake Bay Program / Creative Commons)

Despite national polls showing broad support for utility-scale solar among rural Americans, solar developers now report that community opposition and restrictive siting ordinances are leading causes of project delays and cancellations.

Residents living near proposed and existing utility-scale solar sites have voiced a number of concerns, including its possible impacts on farmland and agricultural production, biodiversity, stormwater runoff, home, and property values, as well as concerns about solar panels’ toxicity and safety. A new study aims to uncover community perceptions of utility-scale projects, and how residents perceive the planning processes that led to them.

In a new paper published in the journal Energy Research and Social Science, researchers from Berkeley Lab, Michigan State University, and the University of Michigan examined the perceived benefits and burdens of recent utility-scale solar development across the US through interviews with 54 interviews with stakeholders including residents, officials and developers at seven utility-scale solar sites across the US.

The interviews were focused on identifying residents’ most common concerns regarding utility-scale solar systems across states, site types, landscapes, and ownership structures. For the study, “utility-scale” (or “large-scale”) solar was defined as ground-mounted photovoltaic projects ≥1 MWDC.

The study found that concerns are often associated with either utility-scale solar development processes or impacts, and center on the type and amount of information provided, the community’s influence over project design, the efficacy of community subscription efforts, as well as projects’ economic, environmental, and visual and landscape impacts.

The researchers also investigated strategies that have been employed to improve perceptions and project outcomes, which include increasing in-person engagement, more explicit discussion of project tradeoffs, third-party intermediaries acting as community champions, and explicit requirements for meaningful local economic benefits.

Utility-scale solar planning and local impacts

The 7 utility-scale solar sites included in the study varied across regions, ownership structures, project types (e.g., agrivoltaics), ecosystems, and local characteristics. Across these sites, local stakeholders’ most common concerns regarding the local project centered around perceptions of the process of utility-scale solar development and the development’s impacts. For example, residents and local officials remarked on how and how much information was provided, the community’s lack of influence over project design, and whether or how community subscription efforts proceeded. Stakeholders also consistently identified the importance of meaningful consideration of economic, environmental, visual, and landscape impacts.

Researchers say the interviews, combined with the findings and insights from prior literature, point to a number of possible strategies aimed at better aligning utility-scale solar development with local communities’ land-use plans, values, and objectives. These could include, for example, increasing in-person engagement, more transparent and explicit discussion of projects’ potential local benefits and burdens, third-party intermediaries acting as community liaisons, and enhancing the provision of local economic benefits.

Ultimately, researchers say the stakeholder responses suggest that a more “community-centered” approach to utility-scale solar development is needed for proposed projects to earn and maintain support from host communities, and this approach should account for local concerns and values, with an aim to improve the outcomes and perceptions for communities hosting utility-scale solar sites.

This work was conducted under Berkeley Lab’s Community-Centered Solar Development research project. Additional research outputs from that project, including analysis of a national survey of nearly 1,000 utility-scale solar project neighbors, are forthcoming, Berkeley Lab said.