The wide-open spaces found in rural America provide some of the best locations for solar and wind farms. But community opposition can stop new projects before they break ground. 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 living in rural Minnesota next door to a utility-scale wind farm.
Yale Climate Connections talked to Lynne about what motivates farmers and other rural landowners to embrace renewable energy projects and the misconceptions outsiders might have about small-town communities.
Yale Climate Connections: You spent nine years as a farm wife and a mother living on the edge of a wind farm. What was it like?
Mariah Lynne: When I moved to Heartland, Minnesota, population 318, I was married at the time and had a 1-year-old son. When I looked out my kitchen window doing dishes, all you saw was corn, soybeans, tractors, agriculture.
And during the time that we lived there, we actually watched the Bent Tree Wind Farm go into construction and go up. And I actually would take my minivan out to the construction site and I would read a book and let my son watch the heavy equipment from a safe distance. And we could spend hours watching it. It just sparked something in me. I thought, “This is really good for us. This is progress on so many different levels.”
YCC: How did the wind turbines impact farm operations?
Lynne: My husband at the time actually rented the farm ground that hosted the turbines. We were fortunate — and I think a number of tenant farmers are fortunate — in that we actually were asked about the placement of the turbines. And the landowner was able to work with us as the tenant farmer to kind of redesign that so that it wouldn’t impact the way that my ex-husband wanted to farm that ground. So I think especially with the clients that I work with in this industry, as we’re producing more of these types of projects, especially wind, there is more cooperation among all of the parties to really figure out the placement, how it will work best for engineering and design and power production, but also how it would work best for the person who is continuing to row crop farm beneath those wind turbines.
And we would have lunch. We would sit on the tailgate of the pick-up right under the turbine. I have family pictures under turbines. It’s beautiful in our opinion.
Nobody wants to be the generation that loses the farm. It’s why we have so much suicide in agriculture. Because it’s a lot of pressure. So when you are fifth-generation on a century farm and you’re trying to make sure that you’re not the generation that loses the century farm, you have to find innovative solutions to provide security to your agricultural operation. So as an agricultural family, looking out over a changing landscape, we saw progress.
YCC: What are some of the most common arguments against renewable energy projects when you go into a rural community?
Lynne: I’ve been doing this for a while now, and I have determined: Every question that comes my way really boils down to one of two things.
One, it’s a viewshed issue. They don’t want to look at it. Change is hard. We don’t own our viewscape. My family, when I was growing up, we kind of lived by the saying, “If you want to control your view, you have to own your view.” So what your neighbor does is your neighbor’s business. They own that. That’s lost a lot of times in the country because people move to the country for peace and quiet. And they move there for the views. So if we’re going to do something on our ground that’s going to change their viewshed, they’re upset.
The second thing is economic jealousy. [For example, let’s say] the person next to you scratches off a lottery ticket and they win a million dollars. There are two types of people in the world: The ones that are going to be like, “Oh my gosh, good for you! I’m so excited for you!” and the kind that are going to go, “Well, how come I don’t get a million dollars?” And when we live in these rural areas, and we’ve established these multi-generational relationships between families, to watch someone be given the opportunity to increase the diversification of their agricultural entity, if you’re not given the same opportunity because that guy has 5,000 acres and I live on a 10-acre homestead, well, that guy’s just getting richer, and I don’t want that guy to get richer.
YCC: How can renewable energy projects address these objections?
Lynne: Some developers will work on viewshed and design — a lot of them do — to try to block that with visual screening. The very responsible ones are extremely, extremely successful in doing that with neighbors. But we need to 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 this? Let’s sit down and let’s discuss this.
And then the economic jealousy, you know, there are “good neighbor agreements” now where people who are directly adjacent to equipment could be eligible to participate in the wind farm or the solar farm. So we do encourage that and we see that.
Everything else — health, safety — those are all things that we can tackle with science and fact.
This is all stuff we can communicate. But we have to find the right methodology to communicate it. You know, peer to peer, we can relate. And we do our due diligence in taking all of that engineer-speak and running it through our filter and putting it out there in a manner that is understandable.
And in order for us to effectively communicate, we have to know our host communities. Not just that it’s a rural small town. We need to know more. We need to have conversations to learn more about their value system. Who are the influencers?
The participating landowners are the best evangelists for the project. They are the ones that are going to be at their daughter’s basketball game on Friday night, and somebody behind them is going to be talking about how toxic the solar panels are going to be on this new project. If they’re educated and confident enough in the knowledge that we’re providing to them, they can actually turn around and say, “You know what? I actually had a really long conversation about that last month. And did you know that there aren’t any toxins that are going to leak out of those panels?” If we educate them, they can educate others, and they can also correct misinformation within their community with a level of pride and confidence.
YCC: What are some of the most common misconceptions that you think renewable energy advocates have about rural communities?
Lynne: I think as people who live in the country, as farmers and ranchers, I think sometimes we are pigeonholed by some people. They think that we aren’t as savvy. Some of the most intelligent people that I’ve ever met in my entire life are agricultural producers. Some of the wealthiest people I have ever met in my entire life are agricultural producers.
I think there’s a misconception that small towns are failed big towns, when in reality, the perspective that you should be looking at is, our small towns are not failed big towns. They’re small because we want to live in small towns. We have no desire, most of us, to live in a larger community. What we are advocating for in these small communities, as residents, as citizens, is to keep them vibrant and healthy, but not to make them larger. And that takes a lot of passion and innovation. Not just living in the country, but being a 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 let’s understand and recognize that classifying any person for any reason is just wrong. We need to get to know and understand every person, every community. We all have personality.