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Opinion | Untested solar and wind policies being forced on rural Michigan

While energy policy directors such as Michigan Energy Innovation Business Council’s Justin Carpenter paint a rosy picture of the relationship between agriculture and utility-scale wind and solar fields, the experience of rural Michigan residents already familiar with these projects is a very different story.

Marjorie Steele
Marjorie Steele is founder and CEO of the Economic Development Responsibility Alliance of Michigan, a grassroots statewide nonprofit.

Michigan’s community of grassroots activists fighting the “clean” energy industry takeover is not without its own experts. Electrical engineers; retired Department of Water Quality officers; chemistry professors; seventh-generation farmers; investigative journalists; the list of relevant professional skills expressed in the local and statewide grassroots communities is long. 

And they’re not alone in their skepticism. In fact, an increasing number of industry experts have expressed serious concerns about the unrealistic nature of global so-called clean-energy transition plans.

The truth is that the tales of pollinator-friendly solar fields and agrivoltaics couldn’t be further from the experiences of rural Michigan residents who are already familiar with utility-scale wind and solar. 

Agricultural, water-rich Shiawassee County now has over 3,000 acres of its farmland transformed into solar fields. Local business owners have been surrounded by the fields, which emit audible electromagnetic frequencies. Local residents report that the ground has been treated with tons of gravel, and all trees and vegetation in the surrounding areas have been cleared. The sites are being used for neither grazing nor pollinator gardens. They are, by report of local agriculturalists, never capable of being used as farmland again.

Furthermore: solar panels contain high quantities of lithium, rare earth elements (REE), and other toxic chemicals, and the potential for these chemicals to leach into surrounding groundwater has simply not been studied. But none of these issues are as significant as the environmental unsustainability of the supply chain, in materials mining on the production end, and in the unrecoverability of lithium and REE in recycling.

Environmental concerns with wind turbines include disruption of light patterns, the killing of bats and birds and insects, and the loud emission of electromagnetic frequencies. Wind turbines have also been shown to significantly lower neighboring property values.

While these projects are being forced upon agricultural communities by policy directors as a solution to climate change, scientific research on these fields, and on the supply chain of utility-scale solar, is poorly lacking. 

Environmental impact studies have not been provided by developers or policymakers. In response to the Michigan Chapter Sierra Club’s Oct. 16 press release about “strong energy bills,” each of the contacts listed were reached out to and asked to comment on environmental impact studies performed for these utility-scale wind and solar fields. Officials from Clean Water, MI Climate Action, Sierra Club, and Groundwork Center did not respond. 

What’s clear is this: the expertise of Michigan’s multi-generational farming communities is being eschewed by policy directors who are working with billions in tax incentives.

But perhaps the most disturbing aspect of Michigan policy directors’ and lobbyists’ push for industry transition is the dismissive attitude towards the rights of local residents and townships.

The proposed House Bills  5120-5123 and Senate Bills 585-588 are perhaps the boldest example yet. These bills would strip local townships of their right to zone for utility-scale wind and solar, and instead place that power into the hands of the state-appointed Public Service Commission. Taking the power out of the hands of local elected officials, and putting it into the hands of appointed officials in Lansing.

This policymaking is deeply undemocratic. What it proposes is unstudied, and unsustainable.

The idea that young Lansing policymakers know how to steward Michigan’s rural environment better than Michigan’s multi-generational agriculturalists is not only condescending. It smacks of imperialism.

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