Are people really this dumb to be scared of solar panels? (Update)

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.

North Carolina citizenry defeat pernicious Big Solar plan to suck up the Sun

US town rejects solar panels amid fears they ‘suck up all the energy from the sun’

North Carolina town rejects solar because it’ll suck up sunlight and kill the plants

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.

  40 comments for “Are people really this dumb to be scared of solar panels? (Update)

  1. Sam
    December 14, 2015 at 8:47 AM

    Good Grief

  2. Dana
    December 14, 2015 at 9:17 AM

    Stupidity must cause cancer in Woodland. I snorted. Not gonna lie. Thank you for this gem today. I needed that.

  3. December 14, 2015 at 9:25 AM

    I suspecf that none of this would have come to pass if the company hoping to built the solar farm, Strata Solar, had done a better job educating the townpeople about the positive effects of the PV industry — increased tax revenues, higher land value, long-term energy security, a cleaner environment, the list goes on. They probably didn’t anticipate the absurd level of ignorance, but the town already has three solar farms, so the opportunity to point to the benefits was much greater than if the idea was new to the town.

    Bottom line, though, is there is no excuse for the town councillors’ foolish decision. When you run for public office, no matter how small the jurisdiction, you need to be able to take the heat, or get out.

  4. Headless Unicorn Guy
    December 14, 2015 at 9:32 AM

    The industry reps attempted to assure them but that will probably not work at all since their opposition is deep and complicated, read on.

    Because the “industry rep” is one of THEM.
    Big Solar.
    THE CONSPIRACY(TM).

  5. December 14, 2015 at 9:47 AM

    Agreed. Negotiation before such a vote is a necessity.

  6. Geoff
    December 14, 2015 at 10:02 AM

    Why is the decision foolish? They apparently already have a few solar farms so we can safely assume it wasn’t based on the crackpot musings of a former “science” teacher. As far as I can tell, we don’t know exactly why the council mad their decision.

  7. December 14, 2015 at 11:20 AM

    I had to comment when I saw these folks being made fun of on Facebook yesterday. Here’s what I said:

    “To be fair these things can take up a lot of land. The big new one in California last year covers about 6 square miles and produces the electricity one natural gas plant would. One of the people who testified here said her home was now surrounded by solar farms. The retired science teacher talked about how she saw dead vegetation near the solar panels. As far as plant life these things are the same as big parking lots. Wouldn’t it be nice if we actually covered parking lots with solar panels instead of wildlife habitat?

    “There are always going to be ignorant or misinformed people testifying at public hearings. Cancer fears are certainly misplaced, but not only about solar panels. People are afraid anything and everything causes cancer including cell phones and GMOs, to take just a couple of common examples.

    “Here are some of Strata’s other solar projects.

    http://www.stratasolar.com/utility/utility-project-spotlight/

    And specifically to a comment re “suck up energy” (which, to be honest, really does sound dumb):

    “But it does ‘suck up’ the energy! It doesn’t need to be expressed in scientific terms to be true.

    “Doesn’t shading the ground prevent sunlight from reaching the ground and kill vegetation that would provide food (energy) for soil organisms, insects and other animals? Plants that would use that energy to make oxygen through photosynthesis and convert nitrogen in the air into fertilizer for future generations? Energy that plants would use to remove CO2 from the atmosphere and sequester it in their bodies and in the ground? Instead of that only a smaller fraction is diverted into the electrical grid and the rest is mostly waste heat that goes into the air.”

  8. December 14, 2015 at 12:29 PM

    I didn’t get into the reason the proposal was voted down in my posts, and maybe I should have. I was just blown away that a science teacher would make such a ridiculous argument against the proposal. I did post the Roanoke-Chowan News Herald article which does explain more, figuring that spoon feeding wasn’t really necessary.

  9. December 14, 2015 at 12:45 PM

    By the way. I’ve added a link to this article at the two places I posted the original. Just to be fair.

  10. Lagaya1
    December 14, 2015 at 1:40 PM

    Here in Hawaii, they’re installing solar panels over parking lots to create carport-like structures full of panels. It takes nothing away from the usable land, and will help keep cars cooler, too. My condo building with over 400 units is covering every parking stall with panels built in this way. There are plenty of places like this where the land is already not being used for anything other than parking. It’s the perfect place to build them.

  11. James Salsman
    December 14, 2015 at 2:44 PM

    Farmers should use solar panels for their fallow fields when they rotate crops because the shade increases soil moisture, and thereby worms and microbes which replenish soil aeration and nutrients.

  12. six_ball
    December 14, 2015 at 3:01 PM

    Opportunity missed is opportunity lost. If the solar purveyors offer to power the town at discount prices there would be NO opposition.

  13. El Hanon
    December 14, 2015 at 3:25 PM

    This is really poor reporting on the part of the journalist(s) that cherry-picked from the original article.

    Jane Mann, the science teacher, said, “… she has observed areas near solar panels where vegetation is brown and dead because it did not receive enough sunlight.” This is probably true, and expected.

    She also said, “no one could tell her that solar panels didn’t cause cancer.” Cancer from the panels is less likely, but possible. For example, rain could wash residual chemicals from the panels into the ground.

    The only questionable statement, by Bobby Mann, was “solar farms would suck up all the energy from the sun.” This was not reported verbatim, so it’s difficult to analyze. However, I do find that poor journalism sucks the life out of me.

    On the other hand, a bunch of websites’ ad-presentations counts got a hefty boost.

  14. drwfishesman
    December 14, 2015 at 3:38 PM

    When I read the story, I suspected that most of the comments had no effect on the council’s vote one way or the other. Whatever reasons existed for voting against the farm did not diminish how astounded I was about the comments from the Mann’s…I suppose they could have been taken out of context buy holy wow, that would have to be some context.

  15. Lagaya1
    December 14, 2015 at 5:17 PM

    I’m not sure what types of chemicals on solar panels would be so abundant as to be cancer risks when washed into the ground. Do you have any info on that? Doesn’t sound plausible to me, even a little.

  16. MisterNeutron
    December 14, 2015 at 5:58 PM

    Though some of the opponents’ statements are a bit over the top or downright ignorant, I’m hesitant to make fun of people who don’t want solar or wind projects to be built near them. We’re very quick to label these projects “environmentally friendly.” But I’m sure that a century ago, everyone thought that hydroelectric dams were environmentally friendly, too. After all, who could possibly object to the creation of a nice recreational lake? Today, we know all too well that a lot of these dams have created havoc with the environment.

    Take a broad desert valley or a pristine mountain pass, then put a large solar or wind project there, and tell me how the environment is improved, or even unchanged. They’re still somewhat novel and interesting, but pretty, they ain’t. They sure beat a coal-fired plant, but they’re not without their costs.

  17. Amy
    December 14, 2015 at 6:28 PM

    I think what that science teacher meant was that plants around the solar panels would not get enough sunlight and die.

    At least I hope that’s what she meant.

  18. David H
    December 14, 2015 at 7:22 PM

    The science teacher’s cancer suspicions might have a more likely explanation.

    In North Carolina, the percentage of adults (ages 18+) who currently smoke cigarettes was 21.8% in 2011. North Carolina ranked 29th among the states.

    The percentage of adults who currently use smokeless tobacco was 5.2% in 2011.
    North Carolina ranked 36th among the states.

    Exposure to Secondhand Smoke
    Percentage of the population reporting exposure and location
    Overall = 48.9%
    Workplaces = 25.3%
    Homes = 15.2%
    Vehicles = 19.2%
    Public places = 31.5%

    Source: National Adult Tobacco Survey, 2009-2010

    Although U.S. tobacco production has decreased significantly since the 1980s (from nearly 180,000 tobacco-growing farms to about 10,000 in 2012), the United States continues to be a leading producer of tobacco.
    The United States is the fourth largest tobacco-producing country in the world, following China, India, and Brazil.
    Farms in the United States produced nearly 800 million pounds of tobacco in 2012.
    In 2012, tobacco was grown in 19 U.S. states, with North Carolina, Kentucky, and Georgia accounting for nearly 80% of production.

    All information from the CDC Website.

  19. December 14, 2015 at 7:40 PM

    Notice they were not direct quotes so it’s unclear exactly what was said.

  20. Tony
    December 14, 2015 at 9:27 PM

    I made the following comment on an FB post earlier today.

    “This has been been reported by many different news outlets but I finally read the original article and although there were definitely some uneducated people in the mix, I think that the story been a little bit sensationalized because of those one or ten morons. http://www.roanoke-chowannewsherald.com/2015/12/08/woodland-rejects-solar-farm/?utm_source=fark&utm_medium=website&utm_content=link

    Someone after me posted a link to this article. I’m really glad I was pointed to this website! Great content!

  21. M Giv
    December 15, 2015 at 3:04 AM

    They may or may not, but I think the townspeople were right to question it. I understand them not blindly trusting energy companies.

  22. M Giv
    December 15, 2015 at 3:18 AM

    I agree this was bad reporting. Went for the sensational by selectively quoting the proceedings. Likely was desperate for his story to go viral. Now respected international newspapers are running “Town Votes Down Solar Farm Because of Fears Panels Soak Up All the Sun” without verifying the original story. I don’t agree with their decision, but I think there were legitimate concerns.

  23. Adam
    December 15, 2015 at 8:19 AM

    I can totally see how they might object based on the perceived lack of benefit of the town. I don’t think other objections hold much water though. If they were worried about jobs or people leaving then the satellite / street view of the town makes it clear why they do – there is NOTHING in that town worth staying for. There’s a small supermarket, a restaurant that barely qualifies as a diner, a gas station and… not much else except a disproportionately large number of churches.

    If solar isn’t providing jobs then how about approving a few more restaurants and amenities to encourage locals and people passing through to stop and enjoy the place.

    As for Boing Boing… it’s best not to get your hopes up about that site. They have a long track record of leaping to conclusions that fit their narrative and ignoring or even banning people who question those conclusions or suggest alternatives.

  24. El Hanon
    December 15, 2015 at 9:29 AM

    Butyryl plastic bonded around the cells, which are then embedded in ethylene vinyl acetate. A polyester film (such as mylar or tedlar) makes up the backing.

    Titanium dioxide or silicon nitride as an anti-reflective coating.

  25. One Eyed Jack
    December 15, 2015 at 10:40 AM

    Wouldn’t it be nice if we actually covered parking lots with solar panels instead of wildlife habitat?

    This is already being done in limited locations with bike paths. Durability is an issue. Bike paths make sense since bikes create less road wear than automobiles. Parking lots and highways would be a long term goal.

    http://www.cnbc.com/2015/12/04/solar-roads-the-future-of-clean-energy.html

  26. One Eyed Jack
    December 15, 2015 at 10:48 AM

    Every compound mentioned is in wide use in other industries. There’s really no reason they would be a special hazard in solar panels.

    Titanium dioxide, for one, is used in paints, sunscreen, and food coloring.

  27. Lagaya1
    December 15, 2015 at 12:02 PM

    El Hanon, I’m not sure what any of those are, but often when people throw around chemical names it’s done to sound scary when there’s nothing to fear. If those are chemicals to fear, how unstable are they in solar panels? How would they leak out in the rain? Perhaps a factory that manufactures solar panels would be unsafe, but how about completed panels?

    Hawaii has been named one of the top 3 healthiest states the last three years (could be more, i only checked back that far), We also have the most solar panels per cap. We also have some of the most fervent and often misguided environmental activists. If there was a hint of cancer from solar panels, there would be picket lines forming, like they do at the Monsanto Company here.

  28. December 15, 2015 at 12:23 PM

    And it hardly matters if you don’t eat it and it doesn’t leach into the environment.

  29. One Eyed Jack
    December 16, 2015 at 12:05 PM

    The first three are plastics, used in many products. They are very stable, common materials. The last I already mentioned.

    So, yes, you hit the nail on the head. Using chemical names to make it sound scary.

    Excuse me while I go have a glass of ethyl butyrate, octyl acetate, ascorbic acid, cyanidin 3-glucoside, 1,3,4,5,6-pentahydroxy-2-hexanone, dissolved in dihydrogen monoxide… aka orange juice. 😉

  30. Lagaya1
    December 16, 2015 at 12:15 PM

    Sounds yummy!!

  31. December 16, 2015 at 6:44 PM

    Just when you think you’re cynical enough of the media…

  32. December 16, 2015 at 7:38 PM

    To be fair, the original local reporting was direct, not bad. It’s places like Mashable and the Independent that do the twisting and promotion of an erroneous slant.

    Also, see more here at Skeptic’s Stack Exchange. http://skeptics.stackexchange.com/questions/31089/did-the-town-of-woodland-north-carolina-usa-reject-a-solar-plant-because-of-of/31122#31122

  33. Cathy
    December 17, 2015 at 8:36 PM

    My 15 year-old daughter saw the title of the Boing Boing article and refused to read it. The stupid was going to hurt her brain!

  34. Ricardo
    December 18, 2015 at 3:41 PM

    News = Entertainment, but also people are too lazy to read the original article. A title and a short paragraph in a webpage o social media are enough to make people believe (stock photo is optional).

  35. Dale
    December 20, 2015 at 11:16 PM

    I love this site. The only thing I’m 100% convinced of is my ignorance about 99% of the world, and I’m 99% sure that what I think I know is BS. Without healthy skepticism of “received knowledge” then propaganda wins. I blame Ron Paul and John Waters for making me question authority.

  36. Russian Skeptic
    December 21, 2015 at 5:59 AM

    “But I’m sure that a century ago, everyone thought that hydroelectric dams were environmentally friendly, too.” – A century ago, the concept of being ‘environmentally friendly’ did not exist at all. Even the pioneering Grey Owl by 1915 had not yet been a fake Native beaver-saver, but a mere drunk white soldier.

  37. December 22, 2015 at 9:24 AM

    Thank you very much for posting this healthy review of the alleged idiocracy in Woodland. Many of my friends from outside the US were all too eager to let this story slip into the category of additional evidence for the poor education and anti-scientific opinion hoarding that’s become a sad stereotype of the country. Fighting that image has proven counterproductive though, as there are already far too many real and well-known examples of similar political stances which run counter to evidence: anti-vaxxers, Creationists, and the Waffenpolitiker (comprising the full gamut of people who believe personal armaments and violence to be the solution to our collective problems). There are problems to be countered in the US with regards to these campaigns of misinformation, and having the media turn our attention to an irrelevant and factually incorrect sideshow like this only helps to confuse the real and present issues.

    Personally, I found it suspicious by the media presentation of these anecdotes as actual evidence for the character of a general population (as clear a case of overgeneralization if there ever was one). It raised big, bright red flags with me, and that is why I was happy to see you address this here, and shed a little more light on the subject. If I had more time to myself I would have looked into it a little more deeply, but I don’t so again, thank you for presenting this so cogently.

  38. Mike C.
    January 5, 2016 at 7:21 AM

    Well, with all the crazy stuff I see on YouTube, there’s no shortage of stupid going around. I have encountered too many videos from imbeciles claiming the earth is flat and/or not moving in space.

  39. Lisa Anderson
    January 10, 2016 at 12:12 PM

    The fact that the citizens don’t receive any financial benefits from the proposed solar farms seems to have been overlooked as another reason to deny a permit.

  40. January 11, 2016 at 3:38 PM

    My home town built a roof over part of the visitors’ center parking lot with solar panels on top. There’s now shade for a few parking spaces (much appreciated in NM) and power for the center. I’ve read about a Walmart in Elephant Butte planning a large version of this approach. A good concept.

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