So, the top story shared on my social media today is a point-and-LOL chortle-fest at a North Carolina town who has rejected a solar panel farm project. There are DOZENS of stories that make fun of the people who provided public comment against the rezoning decision in Woodland, NC because of their apparent ignorance of how solar panels work.
It’s true that the citizen did make some questionable comments.
Jane Mann a retired Northampton science teacher reportedly is…
concerned that photosynthesis, which depends upon sunlight, would not happen and would keep the plants from growing. She said she has observed areas near solar panels where the plants are brown and dead because they did not get enough sunlight.
She also questioned the high number of cancer deaths in the area, saying no one could tell her that solar panels didn’t cause cancer.
Bobby Mann (relation to previous commentator not given):
He said the solar farms would suck up all the energy from the sun and businesses would not come to Woodland.
That’s only two commentators, possibly from the same household. It’s obvious they don’t like the idea and are exhibiting some genuine fear and uncertainty. The industry reps attempted to assure them but that will probably not work at all since their opposition is deep and complicated, read on.
The original source is here at the Roanoke-Chowan News Herald. The Town Council rejected a proposal by the Planning Board to rezone a section of land off U.S. highway 258 from residential/agricultural use to manufacturing use, “essentially denying approval of a solar farm.” Several council members voted for the rejection but one voted against it. (Sorry about the double negatives in use here, but that’s how it went down.) The details of the story reveal that the town may simply be fed up with being overrun by solar farms. Three other solar farms have already been accepted by the town council, with one currently under construction. The council eventually voted for a complete moratorium on solar farms.
The rest of the comments show additional reasons why the citizens aren’t keen on allowing more solar farms. They fear it is lowering their property values, that people are moving away because this industry is not providing additional jobs or bringing in money for the town. And, yes, they don’t trust the government. Not surprising. They are concerned that the panels may be health hazards probably because of misinformation and fear of the unknown. They are looking for direct answers to why their neighbors are dying of cancer, an extremely complicated question, for sure. The comments about blocking out the sun and sucking up the sun’s energy may have been metaphors, or concerns that former growing space is being overrun with giant panels that grow nothing and look ugly to the neighbors.
From the articles, it does NOT appear that the WHOLE town came out to exhibit their basic misunderstanding about solar energy! They are genuinely not happy with the proposed use of the town land. This scenario is VERY COMMON at any town council meeting. Some residents are displeased that things are changing in a way they perceive is not to their advantage. Therefore, in a public forum, they will make heated, emotional, and sometimes rather absurd claims in order to bolster their position. Their uncertainty comes out as comments that can sound quite odd when quoted.
It’s not cool when people post news stories just to point and laugh at people’s “stupidity” when there is obviously more to the stories than given in the local news piece. But in this case, the international media picked up on some key points that may have been errors in judgement or just mistakes and blew them out of proportion. I doubt the council in Woodland would provide some additional insight but I sure would welcome it.
On the other hand, it’s a fact that the world is changing and the citizenry should be making decisions based on EVIDENCE, not rhetoric or rumors or fear. Maybe this is a good learning experience. But I suspect not.
Addition: 3 hours after this post, Snopes.com put up an extremely similar take on the same story (hmm…). They contacted the news reporter (but not the council) to check to see if this story was mischaracterized. It seems confirmed that while some residents “expressed fears about solar panel safety, but they were not the sole voices of dissent at the council meeting.”
People commenting on this story that was shared on many “science” news sites continue to be uncharitable towards the people of the town. I have asked “Boing Boing” (who included a picture of Alfred E. Neuman picking his nose) to add some additional explanation. They haven’t. This is a good lesson in “naive realism”. As quoted in Gilovich & Ross The Wisest One in the Room: “We must recognize that our view of the world is just that – a view that has been shaped by our own vantage point, history and idiosyncratic knowledge.”
Remember, more clicks make these media sites money. That seems to be the driving force for “news” these days. Not truth, but entertainment.
Also, we got an upvote from College of Curiosity. Be curious.
UPDATE (18-Dec 2015) So, this story went viral, obviously, and that caused backlash for the town. As far as I could tell, this post questioning the bad press was one of the first, if not the first, to discuss the problem with the post. Alas, the Snopes version which appeared 3 hours later and looks remarkably like this one, gets all the credit. Several others wrote almost the exact sentiment. We can’t compete with those sources with our resources (read: none). But here is a bit more from the original local writer who apologizes.