Either red states or blue states can be green, John Hay, Nebraska extension educator, told NRT students recently in a myth-busting session about renewable energy.
“This topic of renewables is so politically a hot-button issue and politically driven at times, but look at the states and think about the politics of the states,” he said. “Renewables don't follow politics very well.”
He pointed out 2021 data from the Energy Information Administration showing that the states leading the nation with the percentage of their electricity generated from renewable energy were South Dakota (83%), Vermont (76%), Washington (74%), Idaho (69%), Oregon (64%), Iowa (59%), Maine (56%) and Montana (51%).
All of these states except Iowa ranked high because of hydroelectric energy, Hay said. Iowa ranked high because of wind energy.
Southeastern states typically rank low, he said, because they don’t have the resources.
“They don’t have wind resources,” Hay said. “It rains too much to make cloudy days for good solar resources at a large scale, so they struggle to have large amounts of renewables. That's been a challenge in the southeast United States.”
The cost of renewables more determines usage than what politics does, he said.
“When the price of renewables is low, the utilities are buying it. Who cares what politics are? The price is right,” he said.
When utilities use solar and wind energy, they do so on a large scale, like 5 to 300 acres for solar and hundreds of turbines for wind, Hay said.
Related to this, another myth Hay cited is that turbines will advance into small, powerful units. Wind turbines are huge and only going to get bigger and taller, he said, because the swept area of the blades and the wind itself primarily determine the power they produce.
Because of their size, turbines are expensive to build, transport and install, sometimes even requiring roads to be rebuilt to haul the heavy equipment. These costs may lead people to think the costs of putting in either wind turbines or solar arrays will never be repaid.
“That’s clearly not true,” Hay said. “Solar takes a little longer to pay back than wind, but both are energy positive after a period of time.”
The costs of putting in wind energy equipment are paid by the electricity produced by the turbines within three to eight months, he said. For solar, he said the payoff takes about two to three years but then the array should last 20-25 years, based on data from the international panel on climate change and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.
Hay said he has seen online comments about solar panels being toxic but they are made of silicon, glass, aluminum and, possibly, lead solder.
“Those things are not necessarily toxic in our environment, especially if we move to a nonlead solder,” he said. “We do not have a toxic solar panel, and it is not going to leak anything toxic into our environment. Now we're not great at recycling them at the moment. That's a problem. But that makes them imperfect. It doesn't make them toxic.”
When dismantled, turbine blades and solar panels typically go to a landfill. The base for a turbine is too expensive to remove, Hay said, and is left in the ground with dirt spread over it.
Another potential concern is electromagnetic fields, he said.
“Electromagnetic fields are a real thing and an issue, but in this case, we need to get 10 to 15 feet from any of these electrical generating systems to avoid it,” he said. “There’s a fence. We’re clearly far enough away to have that not be a problem.”
Other problems people identify with wind and solar energy are that the systems make noise, lessen scenic views and decrease property values.
“Noise is subjective, and the studies show a lot of variability,” Hay said. “When they ask people if that wind noise is a problem, they get a lot of variability in the answers. And the annoyance is not always linked to noise, but other factors such as visual.”
He said some studies have found that if people opposed the system being put in, they were more likely to be annoyed by noise from it later. Other studies have found that if people could see the system from their home, they were more likely to say noise from it bothered them.
Yet another study, a 2014 University of Michigan one titled “Wind power as a community issue in Michigan” by Sarah Mills, found about half of the respondents living near a wind farm said turbines cause noise pollution but the other half said they did not. The study discovered that if people received payment through a lease agreement for the land the system sat on, they were more likely to say the system did not cause noise pollution.
“If they were paid, they did not see this as a noise or visual problem as much as if they were not paid,” Hay said.
A wind turbine lease might pay about $10,000 to $15,000 a year. Land lease payments for solar average between $800 to $1000 per acre. Hay said these payments can help out rural landowners and lead them to view wind and solar farms more positively.
Positive or negative attitudes toward wind or solar systems can then affect property values, according to a 2018 study by Richard Vyn, “Property Value Impacts of Wind Turbines and the Influence of Attitudes toward Wind Energy.” Hay discussed the study finding that "unwilling host" municipalities could suffer lowered property values when wind turbines came in.
“If they're negative, it could change the property values because they’re feeling bad about it,” he said. “Nobody wants to go live in that place where everybody is mad.”
He said such negativity can also affect tourism and recreation in the area.
A partial solution for residents opposed to wind or solar structures might be to restrict how close to them the structures can be placed.
“Distance reduces noise, so we could simply say, ‘We can’t put a wind turbine within a certain distance of residents or a town or something like that,’ but as we make those distances long, it becomes harder and harder to build wind farms, and so, then are we getting rid of an industry by this distance, and what distance is appropriate?” Hay asked.
He said the challenge in placing renewable energy systems is they need to be in rural areas yet also in the infrastructure to transmit electricity to the population that uses it. Extremely rural areas would cost millions to build the transmission infrastructure needed.
“Wind and solar are imperfect renewables,” he concluded but said that all types of generation are imperfect, including coal, nuclear and natural gas power plants.
“Really, what I have come to in my own mind is that it just makes that wind turbine imperfect, it doesn't necessarily make it sort of, ‘No, we should never do this,’” he said. “We need to recognize that and work toward better.”
— Ronica Stromberg, NRT Program Coordinator