The wide open spaces in rural America provide some of the best locations for solar and wind farms. But community opposition can stop new projects before they get started. Mariah Lynne, owner and president of Good Steward Consulting, helps renewable energy companies gain acceptance for new projects in rural communities. In this work, Lynne draws on her experience of living in rural Minnesota, next to a large-scale wind farm.
Yale Climate Connections spoke to Lynne about what motivates farmers and other rural landowners to embrace renewable energy projects and misconceptions outsiders might have about small town communities.
Yale Climate Connections: You spent nine years as a farm wife and mother living on the edge of a wind farm. How was it?
Mariah Lynne: When I moved to Heartland, Minnesota, population 318, I was married at the time and had a one year old son. When I looked out my kitchen window doing the dishes, all you saw was corn, soybeans, tractors, agriculture.
And while we were living there, we actually watched the Bent Tree wind farm go into construction and go up. And actually, I was taking my van to the construction site and reading a book and letting my son watch the heavy equipment from a safe distance. And we could spend hours watching it. It just triggered something in me. I thought, “This is really good for us. This is progress on so many different levels.
CCJ: What has been the impact of wind turbines on agricultural operations?
Lynne: My husband at the time was actually renting the land on the farm that housed the wind turbines. We were lucky — and I think a number of sharecroppers are lucky — in that we were asked questions about the location of the wind turbines. And the landowner was able to work with us as a sharecropper to kind of redesign that so that it didn’t impact how my ex-husband wanted to farm that land. So I think especially with the clients that I work with in this industry, as we produce more of these types of projects, especially wind, there’s more cooperation between all parties to really understand the placement , how it will work best for engineering, design and power generation, but also how it would work best for the person who continues to grow row crops under these wind turbines.
And we were going to lunch. We sat on the tailgate of the pickup right under the turbine. I have family photos under the turbines. It is beautiful in our opinion.
No one wants to be the generation that loses the farm. This is why there are so many suicides in agriculture. Because it’s a lot of pressure. So when you’re the fifth generation on a century-old farm and trying to make sure you’re not the generation that loses the century-old farm, you need to come up with innovative solutions to keep your farm business safe. So, as a farming family, in the face of a changing landscape, we have seen progress.
CCJ: What are the most common arguments against renewable energy projects when traveling to a rural community?
Lynne: I’ve been doing this for a while now, and I’ve determined: every question that comes to my mind actually boils down to one of two things.
First, it’s a field of view issue. They don’t want to watch it. Change is difficult. Our landscape does not belong to us. My family, when I was growing up, we sort of lived by the saying, “If you want to control your point of view, you have to own your point of view.” So what your neighbor does is your neighbor’s business. They own it. It’s often lost in the country as people move to the countryside for peace and quiet. And they go there for the views. So if we’re going to do something on our pitch that’s going to change their field of vision, they’re upset.
The second thing is economic jealousy. [For example, let’s say] the person next to you scratches a lottery ticket and wins a million dollars. There are two types of people in the world: Those who are going to say, “Oh my God, good for you! I’m so excited for you!” and the kind that’s going to say, “Well, how come I’m not getting a million dollars?” And when you live in these rural areas, and you’ve established these multi-generational relationships between families, seeing someone being given the opportunity to increase the diversification of their farming entity, if you don’t have the same opportunity because this guy has 5,000 acres and I live on a 10 farm acres, well, this guy just gets richer, and I don’t want this guy to get richer.
CCJ: How can renewable energy projects address these objections?
Lynne: Some developers will work on field of view and design – many of them do – to try and block that with visual filtering. The most responsible ones are extremely, extremely successful at doing this with their neighbors. But we must be able to participate with them. So a neighbor can’t just say, “I don’t want to look at it.” OK, what don’t you like about it? Let’s sit down and discuss it.
And then the economic jealousy, you know, there are now “good neighbor agreements” where people who are directly adjacent to the equipment might be eligible to participate in the wind farm or the solar farm. So we encourage that and we see it.
Everything else – health, safety – these are all things we can tackle with science and facts.
That’s all we can communicate. But we have to find the right methodology to communicate it. You know, as equals, we can identify. And we do our due diligence by taking all that engineering language and putting it through our filter and releasing it in a way that’s understandable.
And for us to communicate effectively, we need to know our host communities. Not only is it a small rural town. We need to know more. We need to have conversations to find out more about their value system. Who are the influencers?
Participating landowners are the project’s top evangelists. They’re the ones going to watch their daughter’s basketball game on Friday night, and someone behind them is going to talk about the toxicity of solar panels on this new project. If they’re educated and confident enough in the knowledge we’re providing them, they can turn around and say, “You know what? In fact, I had a very long conversation about this last month. And did you know that there are no toxins that will leak out of these panels? If we educate them, they can educate others and they can also correct misinformation within their community with pride and confidence.
Related: Three Common Myths About Solar Power, Debunked
CCJ: What do you think are the most common misconceptions renewable energy advocates have about rural communities?
Lynne: I think as people who live in the countryside, as farmers and ranchers, I think sometimes we get pigeonholed by some people. They think we are not so savvy. Some of the smartest people I’ve met in my entire life are agricultural producers. Some of the richest people I have met in my entire life are agricultural producers.
I think there’s a misconception that small towns are big failing cities, when really the perspective you should consider is that our small towns aren’t big failing cities. They are small because we want to live in small towns. We have no desire, most of us, to live in a larger community. What we advocate in these small communities, as residents, as citizens, is to keep them vibrant and healthy, but not to expand them. And that takes a lot of passion and innovation. Not just living in the countryside, but being part of a township, it takes a lot of innovation, a lot of passion and a lot of intelligence to be able to do that. And understand and recognize that to classify a person for any reason is simply wrong. We must get to know and understand each person, each community. We all have a personality.