Fla. solar plans stoke fight over ‘environmental racism’

By Kristi E. Swartz | 06/03/2021 07:08 AM EDT

A northern Florida town is at the center of a clash between renewable energy developers and residents of a historically Black community — one that highlights an emerging rift between President Biden’s environmental justice and clean energy goals.

A fight over a proposed solar farm in north Florida is centered on environmental justice concerns. Solar panels are pictured in this May 6, 2021 file photo.

A fight over a proposed solar farm in north Florida is centered on environmental justice concerns. Solar panels are pictured in this May 6, 2021 file photo. Marcus Brandt/dpa/picture-alliance/Newscom

A northern Florida town is at the center of a clash between renewable energy developers and residents of a historically Black community — one that highlights an emerging rift between President Biden’s environmental justice and clean energy goals.

Many Archer residents are descendants of slaves and some of the nation’s earliest Black landowners.

And they want nothing to do with a 50-megawatt solar and 12-MW battery storage project proposed by Origis Energy and Gainesville Regional Utilities, or GRU. The project would span roughly 600 acres, and developers said the panels would be tucked behind a buffer of trees. Yet in residents’ eyes, a utility-scale solar array is no different from a coal-fired power plant: a blemish on a community whose roots date back to before the Civil War.


The stakes are high. Electric companies need to meet carbon-reduction goals as the Biden administration doubles down on clean energy, and the low cost of solar can make utility-scale projects attractive. But renewable energy developers are bumping up against opposition similar to what has occurred with many fossil-fuel-powered plants.

"Recognize the need for utility-scale solar facilities to move to a clean energy future, and recognize that those facilities still exert their own environmental and social impacts," said Kim Ross, executive director of the pro-renewables group ReThink Energy Florida, testifying before a Florida Senate committee in April. "There are times where solar in a particular location is not appropriate."

People who live in rural areas often do not want their land to be disturbed by what they consider to be industrial infrastructure. Some simply do not want to look at the shiny panels or are worried about property values. But in Archer, which is in Alachua County just outside Gainesville, the concerns run deeper than that: Many Black residents can trace their lineage back six generations. Graves at the Bethlehem Methodist Episcopal Cemetery date to the 1830s, and residents don’t want that land to be in the shadow of solar panels.

"You all have neglected Archer," said longtime resident and historian Lizzie Jenkins during a virtual open house on April 15 about Origis’ FL Solar 6-Sand Bluff project. "Archer needs Alachua County to respect us. … This is about Archer’s history."

Biden has made environmental justice a key part of his $2.2 trillion infrastructure plan. The administration has proposed to tackle historic racial inequities while cleaning up roads, land, air and water.

For Archer residents, this could mean they finally get a four-lane road like every other town in the county. And County Road 241 will be repaved.

"That road is so bad. It is terrible," Jenkins said. "If you don’t believe me, drive it."

Biden wants the power sector to decarbonize by 2035, and solar and other renewables will be pivotal for electric companies to hit those targets. The president’s American Jobs Plan touts ways to promote fairness in energy policy, including the electric grid and public transit. Biden has pledged to direct 40% of "benefits" from clean energy investments toward underserved communities.

Clean energy advocates and racial justice groups are pushing for that money to target rooftop and community solar in disadvantaged areas (Energywire, April 21).

For its part, the city of Gainesville committed to a 100% renewable energy goal in 2018, and its main utility said it would "look forward to continued progress" on the Sand Bluff project.

"GRU is committed to bringing renewable energy to its customers and to making this a successful project for all parties, including Gainesville and its surrounding communities," the utility said in a statement to E&E News.

Lawmakers weigh in

In Florida, the battle over solar in Archer made it to the state Legislature. An amendment that blocks local governments from barring solar development on agricultural land was tacked on to a bill about biogas and renewable natural gas the week before the Legislature wrapped on April 30.

The move drew the ire of many lawmakers who said, broadly, it is not up to the state to tell local governments how to do land planning.

"It troubles me that we as a legislative body would come together in Tallahassee and consider that solar farms are agricultural use," said state Sen. Bobby Powell, a Democrat from West Palm Beach who also is a certified planner. "This is against my training or anything I’ve ever seen."

The controversial bill passed the state Senate along party lines and moved swiftly to the House. A heated debate over local control took place in both chambers before the measure passed. Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) has yet to sign the bill, which would become law July 1.

In Florida’s House, state Rep. Cord Byrd, a Republican from Jacksonville, talked up the economic benefits that solar can give to farmers and brought up carbon dioxide targets.

"This is generating electricity at the scale necessary to achieve ambitious carbon-reduction goals that require long-term planning for efficient and responsible project development," he said.

Katie Ottenweller, Southeast director for Vote Solar, said every community should be able to decide what’s appropriate for its residents and their land.

There’s a way for solar and agriculture land to coexist and not be opposing forces, she said. Developers can talk to farmers about pollinator-friendly projects, urge them to consider solar cooperatives or place the arrays on land that isn’t being used.

"It takes opportunity and collaboration. We’re just not seeing it in Florida right now," Ottenweller said.

The Solar Energy Industries Association in April released a new advocacy policy platform that includes environmental justice priorities. While the focus is on expanding access to solar energy, it includes "siting and permitting processes for large-scale renewable energy projects that are conducted in consultation with impacted communities," the group said.

"If we want to build an equitable clean energy economy, we need to be intentional about our advocacy," said Abigail Ross Hopper, SEIA’s president and CEO. "Environmental justice leaders have given us a clear road map, and now it’s our turn to follow it and advocate for the policies that support front-line communities."

Community tug of war

Sand Bluff is the second solar project the Archer community has fought in as many years. First Solar Inc. wanted to build a significantly larger system — the now-defunct Archer Solar project — that would have added 74.9 MW of generation 2 miles north of the town.

The electricity was going to flow onto Duke Energy Florida’s grid, had the electric company bought the finished project. The goal was to have it built and operating by the end of 2021, but Duke Energy chose another site for those solar megawatts after the county denied a zoning exception to First Solar for the 650-acre plant.

It is common for major solar arrays in Florida to be just shy of 75 MW. Any proposed power plant at or above that amount must go before the state’s Power Plant Siting Board, made up of the governor and Cabinet.

"A reason to vote ‘no’ is based on environmental justice," Connie Lee, a retired teacher and executive board member of the local branch of the NAACP, said at a special meeting before Alachua County’s Board of Commissioners last October on the Archer Solar project. "In this case, the energy industry will simply replace building fossil fuel plants with renewable power plants or newer technology and continue exploitation in the name of economic development."

The meeting lasted for seven hours before commissioners, in a split vote, denied a special exemption permit to First Solar.

The debate among the commissioners illustrated what is likely to be a recurring tug of war in communities nationwide.

"There’s an overwhelming public and human interest in building as much solar as we can," said then-Alachua County Commissioner Mike Byerly. "This is it. This is where the rubber meets the road."

Commissioner Charles "Chuck" Chestnut IV said it’s not up to others to say that solar is more important than how a Black community feels about its property value.

"You can’t have a community that calls environmental racism, and then we turn a deaf ear and say, ‘Oh, this isn’t environmental racism.’"

Having to shelve plans for the Archer-area project will not set back Duke Energy Florida’s solar plans or those of its parent company, Duke Energy spokesperson Ana Gibbs said in an email to E&E News. The North Carolina-based utility company has a 2050 net-zero carbon goal.

Duke Energy will be able to get those solar electrons from the Sandy Creek solar plant in Bay County, home of Panama City, Gibbs said. Duke Energy Florida has more than 900 MW of solar being built or already operating.

Paul Patterson, a utility analyst with Glenrock Associates LLC, said that when it comes to large-scale electricity projects, solar is one of the least controversial.

"I’m surprised that [solar] would be drawing that much of an issue," he said. "I don’t mean to speak against anybody, but name one major infrastructure project that’s not going to be disruptive to local communities."

Among the arguments from Archer residents is that they would not get the solar electricity from either project. Archer is powered by the Clay Electric Cooperative, which gets its electricity from the larger Seminole Electric Cooperative Inc., based in Tampa.

Seminole relies heavily on fossil fuels, including coal. It operates a 2.2-MW solar plant as well.

Jason Thomas, Origis Energy’s project development director, said during the virtual open house that the company wants to work with Clay Electric and asked for ideas from the community.

No home would be within 1,000 feet of the Sand Bluff solar panels, he said. Origis also plans to double the size of a required buffer to make it 50 yards — "that’s from the center of the Gator to the end zone," Thomas said, referring to the University of Florida Gators’ logo in the center of their football field.

Thomas also outlined what he called "goodwill gestures" by Origis, including an on-site educational center for solar. He pointed out the Origis Energy Foundation is donating money to the newly started 100 Black Men of Greater Florida Gainesville, a longtime civic and service organization that mentors Black teenagers, among other local causes.

In Archer, Origis is donating money to the Real Rosewood Foundation Inc., founded by Jenkins, to build a cultural and historical museum.

"I just wanted to say that this project has been designed by experts to be a good neighbor," Thomas said. "You won’t see it, you’re not going to hear it, it doesn’t require any water for operations or maintenance, and it sits low to the ground."

What’s more, it will contribute $1 million in revenue total to Alachua County over the next 10 years, he said.

The Alachua County Board of Commissioners has scheduled a special meeting to vote on Origis’ zoning request on July 6.

‘Gold rush’

These fights against utility-scale solar on agricultural and other prime land are taking place across the country. Wisconsin residents opposed a 1,400-acre solar farm, the Grant County Solar Energy Center, that renewable giant NextEra Energy Resources wants to build. It would sell the electricity to Alliant Energy, which has a 2050 net-zero carbon goal.

State utility regulators approved the project over residents’ concerns, which included decreased property values and harming wildlife.

In Virginia, Susan Ralston is trying to preserve Civil War-era history of a different kind. Culpeper — specifically the Cedar Mountain Battlefield and Raccoon Ford — represents the most marched-on, camped-on and fought-on land during the Civil War, she said.

"When Biden was coming in, we all knew, ‘Ooh, just wait until he gets in, and the progressives and the Green New Deal has a green light,’" she said in a recent interview. "It has come to fruition. It’s like a land rush. It’s a gold rush."

The pace of people contacting her has reached a fever pitch.

"That’s the unwritten, the untold story: the plight of the rural community," she said.

Virginia’s clean energy law has a 2050 net-zero carbon target, something that has led to what Ralston calls "open season" for solar. She’s continuing to fight projects in her county, but there are similar battles going on in other parts of Virginia, West Virginia, Georgia, South Carolina and elsewhere.

It’s something that Johan Vanhee, chief commercial and procurement officer at Origis Energy, is used to.

"I always say that project development is not for the weak of heart," he told E&E News. "The project will die seven times before you can actually start building it."

Origis does not discuss projects in the middle of the siting process, so he did not talk about the Sand Bluff proposal.

But Vanhee said the key for any project is assessing and managing risks. Doing homework such as learning about a community or county that might oppose the development is crucial, he said.

Origis has been developing projects for large, investor-owned utilities, but Vanhee said municipalities and electric cooperatives have shown increased interest in solar in the last few years. He’s expecting a new wave to come with Biden’s clean energy plans.

"Our experience shows that if you use the right public outreach, it eliminates a lot of the misconceptions," he said.