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Overcoming Opposition to California’s Solar Energy Sector

maiorino, al, public strategy groupSince the 1970s, California has taken the initiative to increase opportunities for renewable energy sources to replace fossil fuels. Progressive legislation and ideal land conditions have allowed for California businesses and residents to see the positive effects that renewable energy sources can bring, but this first-hand experience has also brought with it public opposition to large-scale projects in the California deserts. A November 2013 report by the UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation may be a key factor in helping the solar industry in particular to overcome public opposition to renewable projects, often known as NIMBY or “not in my backyard” opposition. The study finds that an enormous opportunity exists for solar energy to expand on California’s rooftops, rather than in its deserts, due to vast areas of undeveloped rooftop space and suitable conditions in California cities. Along with the proper strategies to counter public opposition, attention to these findings could help solar companies successfully gain project approval to help the state meet its fossil fuel reduction objectives over the next several decades.

The conclusions from the Luskin Center study could have dramatic effects in regards to increasing the efficiency of Los Angeles County and increasing renewable energy directly in the city. According to the results, increasing energy production in the county by rooftop solar panels by just 5 percent could cut carbon dioxide emissions by 1.25 million tons each year, which is the same amount of pollution produced by 250,000 cars. A 5 percent increase in rooftop panels would also create 29,000 maintenance and support jobs once the panels are in operation. The study further concluded that the installation of rooftop solar panels in LA County could produce upwards of half the amount of California’s statewide demand on its hottest days. In all, the study’s findings identify key opportunities to increase rooftop solar panel development projects in LA County that will ultimately allow for greater potential for growth in the industry throughout the rest of the state.

Despite the progress the state has made with respect to its goal of reaching 33% renewable energy production, and onward to 80% greenhouse gas reduction by 2050, California’s efforts have not been without public opposition. Large-scale desert solar panel developments in particular have faced the brunt of NIMBY opposition in California, causing significant delays in the entitlement process due to this opposition. Now, with the Luskin Center study in mind, solar companies can try to circumvent some of the most widespread opposition faced by large-scale desert solar farm companies by diverting the focus of new projects towards the great potential that exists in rooftop projects in cities.

Though large-scale desert solar panel projects in California have been viewed as opportunities to take advantage of California’s ripe conditions with consistently sunny skies and high altitudes, public opposition to these projects, such as that experienced in San Luis Obispo County, shows the potential for delays or canceled projects without a strategically executed public affairs plan. In San Luis Obispo County, construction for the Topaz Solar Farm project began in 2011 with the farm set to begin operation in 2014. This farm intended to supply power to 160,000 homes in the county, but a project of this scale attracted enough NIMBY-style opposition to slow down the approval process. Opponents of the project appealed its continued construction in 2011, citing concerns over an alteration of the landscape and the preservation of organisms’ habitats. While the opponents’ appeals to the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors were ultimately rejected, allowing for the development to continue, the disruption cost the developers’ significant time and resources and delayed San Luis Obispo residents’ access to this new source of renewable energy.

Moving forward in California with solar panels will now likely mean emphasizing large scale rooftop projects in the cities. Solar companies can use the Luskin Center study as an opportunity to show businesses and residents the potential energy that can be created with new city development projects, not only in Los Angeles County, but across California. Through an organized public affairs campaign when proposals are first introduced to communities, solar companies in California should emphasize that large scale rooftop solar projects in the cities are not only cost effective and highly productive, but also have the potential to become one of California’s leading renewable energy sources. Campaigns that include outreach to residents through direct mail, phone banking, and letter writing drives will turn supporters of the projects out to vote to ultimately gain successful project approvals. Through these strategic steps, companies throughout the industry can build vocal support for large scale rooftop solar panel developments so that public officials can finally hear the community’s supportive voice.

Solar panel development projects present enormous potential for increasing renewable energy in California. With the Luskin Center study as a key motivator for Californian politicians to increase opportunities to enhance rooftop solar panel projects, California can more easily meet or even exceed its goal of 33 percent renewable energy production by 2020. Learning from the opposition experienced in desert projects in the past, companies can grasp new opportunities in cities with a greater likelihood of support from businesses and residents of California.

Al Maiorino started Public Strategy Group, Inc. in 1995.  His firm has developed and managed multiple corporate public affairs campaigns in a variety of industries such as gaming, cable television, retail development, auto racing, power plant/wind farm projects, and housing/residential projects. Additionally, his firm has worked on projects in twenty states and three countries. Al received his BA in political science and a MA in American studies from the University of Connecticut.

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One thought on “Overcoming Opposition to California’s Solar Energy Sector

  1. “Opponents of the project appealed its continued construction in 2011, citing concerns over an alteration of the landscape and the preservation of organisms’ habitats.” These are two distinct objections. The first is an inherent feature of solar plants, and can’t be massaged away, though good design can help at the margins. The second is contingent. There’s no technical necessity to sterilise the ground beneath solar panels or heliostats and turn a living desert into a dead parking lot. Solar developers should be required to minimise the impact on vegetation and wildlife habitat. Both can indeed benefit from partial shade.

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