Climate Justice and the Debate about Community Solar on Farmland

October 9, 2020
NREL
Kristal Hansley & Doug Boucher

Changes in agricultural zoning are a part of government that generally get very little attention, and are seldom seen as involving issues of racism and climate justice. But increasingly, states and counties across the country are seeing that questions of local land use and how we can prevent dangerous climate change are also matters of environmental justice.

We have recently been involved in such a debate in Montgomery County, Maryland, which is the county of about 1 million just to the northwest of Washington, DC. A proposed change in zoning would allow community solar projects (10 to 15 acres) on farms in the county’s Agricultural Reserve, which compromises the rural one-third of its land.

Community solar makes it possible for people who can’t put solar panels on their roofs to get clean energy nonetheless. They simply subscribe to a project in their region, are supplied with the electricity they need from it, potentially even at reduced rates, and don’t need to invest the many thousands of dollars required to install rooftop solar.

Although the zoning amendment would limit solar to less than 2% of the area, it has aroused fierce opposition from those who believe that nothing but agriculture should be allowed in the Agricultural Reserve. Similar struggles are taking place in other counties in Maryland and in many other states.

Whether to permit and encourage this approach is a matter of climate justice in several different ways:

1. Community solar makes solar energy accessible to everyone

Community solar can dramatically expand access to solar, beyond the residents with the necessary roof space and access to capital. About three-quarters of households are effectively excluded from rooftop solar because they’re renters (one-third of households), because they live in multi-family dwellings and don’t own their roofs, because their roofs are shaded or face the wrong way, because they don’t have the savings or credit rating to come up with the initial investment, etc.

The more community solar is allowed, the more people who can benefit from it. In some cases, it can even help households save money from the program’s rate reductions (10 to 30% for low and moderate income households.) In Maryland’s community solar program, for example, the average yearly savings for low to moderate income households is $ 250, which adds up to $ 5000 over 20 years. Excluding projects from most or all farmland would mean that much less community solar would be available for subscribers, severely limiting how many families could benefit.

2. Community solar reduces all the emissions from fossil fuels.

Community solar can also address emissions carbon dioxide. Solar reduces CO2 emissions by displacing fossil fuel electricity generation, which is really important in terms of climate change. But displacing those fossil fuels also reduces the air pollutants such as the SOx, NOx and particulate matter that cause asthma, cancer and heart disease. The threats to health and survival from these emissions disproportionately hurt Black and Latinx families, reflecting many decades of environmental racism that has continued into the 21st century.

Opponents of community solar on farmland in Montgomery County have argued that it’s not necessary, arguing that farmland can help solve our climate problem through sequestration. This refers to approaches such as reforestation and regenerative agriculture techniques like cover cropping, no-till cropping, composting and rotational grazing that reduce the emissions from farms by taking CO2 out of the atmosphere.

These kinds of changes in land use are useful—indeed, essential—but they are not nearly enough. Solar on farmland can reduce at least dozens of times more emissions per acre as reforestation and regenerative agriculture (and around 100 in the case of Maryland, according to our calculations). Furthermore, while these alternatives reduce the climate pollution from agriculture, they don’t deal with the other pollution that cause asthma, cancer and other diseases. They sequester carbon dioxide, but leave the other air pollutants to continue harming our health. Clean energy, on the other hand, reduces the burning of fossil fuels and all of the harmful emissions that they produce.

3. Climate change threatens all of us, but especially people of color.

Using solar to reduce CO2 emissions matters for climate justice. The heat waves climate change is producing are especially dangerous to people without air conditioning. The flooding it causes are most threatening to homes in low-lying areas and flood plains. The threats to health posed by climate change are particularly grave for people with pre-existing conditions, jobs that expose them to danger, and inadequate health insurance coverage.

Latinx and Black communities are suffering disproportionately from environmental threats because of the long legacy of structural racism, and climate change is making these threats worse and worse.

Thus, failing to do everything we can to combat climate change causes the most harm to those who have already suffered the most from environmental racism. More and more, cites, states, and countries are acknowledging the scientific consensus on climate by adopting commitments to becoming totally carbon-neutral. But these resolutions have to following by swift and bold action to make their promises into reality, by transforming our economy to one based on 100% clean energy. If this isn’t done, then the declarations of climate emergencies will be just another empty promise, and communities of color will pay the price.

4. It’s about whether we are all willing to do our fair share.

Climate change threatens everyone, but some of us a lot more than others. Likewise, some of us have a lot more of the resources needed to do something about it – a rooftop or a piece of farmland that we own, money that we could invest in clean energy, or the political and economic power to decide how these resources are allocated. It is deeply unfair for those who can act most easily to obstruct the climate actions that would protect those who suffer the most.

Asking urban and suburban communities to shoulder the whole burden of converting our economy from fossil fuels to clean energy is essentially unjust. In the long run, we’ll all benefit from the rapid development of community solar, but communities of color will benefit the most. And they will continue to suffer the most from inaction and delay.

In Montgomery County, Maryland, we’re facing a clear choice about our energy future and the commitment that our county made three years ago—to reduce our emissions 80% by 2027 and become carbon-neutral by 2035. Our County Council will decide whether to allow community solar in the Agricultural Reserve in October, and we’re hoping for a decision that makes renewable energy available to all, for the economic and environmental benefits it brings and because we believe that climate justice matters.

Climate justice requires us to consider renewable energy and zoning policies not just as technical questions, but as fundamental moral challenges. It asks us to decide what we stand for and what we are willing to do for the health and survival of our neighbors. And that means not just our local neighbors, but our neighbors throughout the country—and ultimately, throughout the world.