Not much grows in Woodland. Farmers cultivate small amounts of tobacco, pick cotton, and harvest soybeans in this north-eastern North Carolina town. This 800-person community with roughly twice the national poverty rate has seen better days.
But then, clean energy companies arrived. They saw opportunity and started building solar farms in the town – bringing a new kind of industry to a place that hadn’t seen much in the way of economic development.
The community welcomed the change with open arms – at first.
Thanks to enticing tax credits and a state law requiring utilities to use some clean energy, solar power produced in North Carolina generated more than 1,000 GWh – enough to power more than 90,000 average Americans’ homes for a year – in just the first six months of 2015.
Up until recently, Woodland was a microcosm of this statewide trend. The rural town, located 90 minutes south-west of Norfolk, Virginia, had approved the installation of three solar farms on the outskirts of town, with the first of those projects nearing completion.
Earlier this month, however, that reputation vanished as the town’s leaders approved a solar moratorium after residents skeptical of clean energy’s effects on the town were heard around the world.
North Carolina-based Strata, one of the nation’s largest solar companies, wanted to rezone a 42-acre farm on the eastern edge of Woodland off Highway 258, the town’s main road. If the project had been approved, Strata senior vice-president of strategy Brian O’Hara says, the company intended to build a five-megawatt solar farm that would have generated enough electricity to power about 750 homes – roughly double the number of households in Woodland.
According to the local newspaper the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald, Woodland resident Jean Barnes presented a petition on behalf of locals that opposed additional solar farms and personally requested a referendum for any future proposals.
Another resident, Mary Hobbs, lamented the loss of her home’s value as the result of what seemed like endless solar panels being installed.
The opposition intensified when one couple, Jane and Bobby Mann, claimed that solar advocates had secret agendas. Jane Mann expressed fears that solar farms had boosted cancer rates in the area. Bobby warned businesses would stay away from the town because the solar industry would capture too much of the town’s sun.
“You’re killing your town,” Bobby Mann said at the meeting. Though Strata has experienced opposition in the past, O’Hara says, the ferocity of the remarks came as a shock to the renewable energy company.
The Woodland town council ultimately voted against the rezoning because of their constituents’ concerns given that “it would create a situation in which the town would be completely surrounded by solar farms”. In case that wasn’t enough, local officials went one step further to pass a moratorium for all future solar farms.
“How would you and your family like to live in the middle of a solar farm, surrounded on all four sides?” Woodland councilman Ron Lane told the News & Observer. “We have approved three solar farms on almost three points of the compass. This would have completely boxed the town in with solar farms.”
Despite some legitimate concerns, Woodland became the subject of ridicule as some of the public’s remarks went viral on websites such as Huffington Post, Ars Technica, and Daily Kos aggregated their remarks (one headline read: “North Carolina citizenry defeat pernicious Big Solar plan to suck up the Sun”). Since the meeting, phones haven’t stopped ringing at Woodland’s city hall and, according to Woodland’s mayor, Kenneth Manuel, have turned into a distraction from the government’s daily operations.
“We’ve just been inundated, as you could imagine,” Manuel told the Guardian. “We want to set the record straight. Some folks have got it really twisted. They didn’t care about what the truth was; they wanted to super-sensationalize it, as folks will do.”
The worldwide spotlight has rattled the small town. But Manuel insisted Woodland remains a place that embraces clean energy, given its three solar farms already on the way. However, he drew the line at four solar farms, as it would give the town a disproportionate number at a time when other businesses would better serve local people. “We want to attract more businesses,” Manuel said. “We support solar farms and clean energy – clearly, that’s indicative – given that we already have three solar farms approved. We’d also like to attract other businesses like a supermarket or some kind of shopping center to buy clothing.”
Around the state, Strata’s O’Hara said, the company has seen an uptick in efforts to undermine the spread of solar from politicians, lobbyists and organizations. More recently, as the company has made bids to build solar farms, more residents looking to curb clean energy have taken stands based on flawed arguments and falsehoods. That’s become a source of frustration for a company trying to lessen a coal-reliant state’s dependency on non-renewable energy sources.
With no additional solar facilities planned for Woodland, Manuel hopes things return to the way they were before the December meeting placed the town on the map. What does that look like for this Tar Heel town? Less solar farming, and more of the farming that’s long remained the bedrock of this community for decades.
“We’re going to move on,” Manuel told the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald. “We will be vindicated by the truth.”