Study says sense of place, not climate belief, drives negative upstate attitudes toward solar

Enterprise file photo —

ALBANY — A recent study by Cornell University researchers sheds light on what makes upstate New Yorkers, who are otherwise broadly in favor of renewable energy development, anti-solar when it comes to their own communities. 

In addition to field work, the researchers surveyed more than 400 residents in areas of northern and western New York State about their opinions on utility-scale solar — which the study defined as large solar facilities that generate electricity sent somewhere else — while also measuring their political attitudes, belief in climate change, upstate identity, and local attachment, among other things. 

Their observations suggested that the factors most correlated with stance on solar development were those that related in some way to sense of place, such as how secure people felt in their own community, how strongly they identify with an upstate point-of-view, and whether they feel their area can compete fairly against other areas for its own interests. 

In other words, people — in this case mostly older, politically moderate, rural residents — were most reactive to a sense that upstate New York wasn’t getting a fair shake, and that the proliferation of solar facilities in their area is yet another example of upstaters shouldering the burden of downstaters’ needs. 

“Solar energy is usually described as a promising and clean technology and is often touted as a key response to the climate crisis,” the study reads. “But the growing trend of developing [utility-scale solar] sites in rural places highlights how solar can recreate energy production and consumption patterns between rural and urban society — patterns which historically have contributed to spatial inequalities.” 

What didn’t appear to contribute to respondents’ stance on solar development were their political affiliation or belief in climate change — most respondents did realize climate change is real, and the correlation between political affiliation and opposition to solar was insignificant.

 

Local views

The results largely reflect the nature of discussion around solar development in The Enterprise coverage area, and particularly in the rural Hilltowns, where people are far more likely to argue that a project will diminish a community’s character and their own quality of life than they are to claim that solar energy isn’t needed in the first place.  

In Westerlo, where the town’s planning board accepted proposals for five different projects  in a two-year period, one key question in the debate over whether it was worth it and whether it should continue was whether the town was making enough money in payment-in-lieu of taxes (PILOT) agreements to justify building what many believe to be eyesores. 

Because New York State has incentivized solar development by making those facilities exempt from paying property tax, developers typically negotiate with a town to pay a fraction of what the town would likely be earning in property taxes so that officials are more agreeable to waving projects through.  

Westerlo’s supervisor during that period, Bill Bichteman, aDemocrat, argued that PILOTs were only a very modest benefit for the town, an attitude shared by his successor, Matthew Kryzak, a Republican. 

Estimating in 2019 that the town’s PILOT agreements would net roughly $36,000 a year for 15 years, Bichteman told The Enterprise, “It helps, but is a long way from substantially reducing taxes and it barely meets the anticipated inflation. … The money derived from our solar farms is divided among all the Greenville School District taxpayers. Westerlo residents will hardly, if at all, realize a tax savings. There is no doubt the solar revenue helps but it is not the windfall others would have you believe.”

In Knox last year, officials bargained hard for a PILOT agreement that was more favorable to the town, since the standard terms — splitting payments between the town, school district, and county proportional to each one’s tax rate — left the town with the lowest of the three jurisdictions despite the fact that it was arguably the only one taking on the downsides of a solar site. 

Knox succeeded in getting developer RIC Energy to make additional payments to Knox on top of the standard rate, so that the town receives $30,000 a year — but it was still far below the $200,000 that Supervisor Russ Pokorny, who was once the town’s assessor, estimated that the facility would have paid in property taxes. 

Because the electricity from local solar farms is sent to the grid and not generating energy specifically for the community, PILOTs are the only way for residents to receive a direct benefit, but that benefit has to compete with a wide range of downsides, many more acute and person-specific than changes to a local budget, such as those expressed by a Knox family in a letter to the Enterprise editor this week about another solar facility being proposed by RIC near their home. 

The Gaiges write, “We did not buy our 6-plus acres of land and build a home over 30 years ago to look out our back windows at a sea of moving solar panels. We have enjoyed watching nature undisturbed for all this time.

“The deer that annually eat the apples off our trees as well as the groundhogs stopped coming the year RIC was testing the land,” they continue. “We have enjoyed many more wild animals on our property who have brought us great joy over the years.

“Second,” the letter goes on, “I’m not going to delve into how the noise (it does not need to be loud — just unexpected) from the construction phase taking place six days a week until 6 p.m. will completely derail our daughter who has cerebral palsy.”

 

NIMBYism?

All of this likely contributes to something the Cornell researchers observed about the “not-in-my-backyard” phenomenon, known as NIMBYism.

Some opponents of solar projects “engaged the label of NIMBYism, but contradicted the common usage of this term as dismissive and judgmental — that is, they are reasonable to not want this in their backyard, based on the distribution of costs and benefits,” the study says.

Responding to concerns like these will be critical in achieving the emissions goals the state has set for itself, since rural land is far more ideal for developers than city or suburban land, and large-scale solar is more efficient than decentralized solar options like rooftop panels, which another study notes is more popular than large-scale solar. 

“Although we demonstrated there is a positive relationship between place attachment and opposition to proposed [solar projects], this should not imply that USS projects should only be developed in areas where resistance to place change is least likely,” the study says of utility-scale solar. “This practice could effectively perpetuate the patterns of environmental injustice, or the siting of undesirable infrastructures among communities least likely and able to resist them (see also Berquist et al. 2020).

“Instead,” the study goes on, “we call for close attention to the specific place characteristics and meanings that lead to attachment, as there may be ways for these features to be maintained while developing USS projects.”

 The perceived injustice of solar siting by rural upstaters, the study says (noting that it does not suggest whether that feeling is accurate or not), “should not be ignored, rather acknowledged and used to plan, design, and construct solar and other renewable energy technologies with close attention to distributive and procedural justice.”

More Hilltowns News

  • The dam was found to be leaking in 2018 due to a broken pipe, but there were problems finding a vendor so the issue was tabled by the Rensselaerville Town Board at the time. Now, the leak appears to be getting worse, says Ed Csukas, who chairs Rensselaerville’s water and sewer advisory committee. “It’s getting close to being urgent,” he said, “but hopefully not an emergency.”

  • The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation will help Rensselaerville and three other Albany County municipalities with water source protection by providing free consultation on matters of funding, data interpretation, plan development, and more.  

  • Joseph M. Sciancalepore, of Freehold, was charged with burglary and assault, among other crimes, after, police say, he entered a Westerlo residence while armed with a knife. 

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