Skip to main content

Policy Pinpoint: Re-Charge for a Heavy Responsibility

Agrivoltaic projects, where solar panels create shade and revenue for farmers, suggest one compelling development model.

In Brief

Models from authoritative sources say the Inflation Reduction Act's incentives will drive the United States' carbon emissions dramatically down. But...

Models' relationship to reality depends on humans' acting in their collective best interest. And that depends on further factors. 

What attitudes about land, channeled through which policies, will clear space to make the models accurate? 

The energy transition can happen in the next few decades.  But what would making it happen require of citizens whom we can't make do what they don't want to?
Making it happen, thanks to the Inflation Reduction Act, makes economic dollars and sense for businesses that avail themselves of tax credits for producing renewable energy, for training people to operate renewable projects, and for building those projects with American parts and labor. And yet.
Nobody can force developers to see their projects through. And nobody can force members of town councils to approve project sitings. The same goes for loan officers, for directors of traditional utility companies, and for citizens who resent the idea of clean energy arriving via heavy construction and sometimes hazardous work on places they love.
A commonplace has emerged in definitive news channels: Local Government X, tethered to a 2030 clean-energy mandate, wants to build Solar Array Y in Z Memorial State Park. A birder, often with a twinkly eye and perhaps strategically placed binoculars, represents a coalition opposing the solar project's incursion on views and trails.
When I read stories like this, I itch. Can't people align for the greater cause? Wouldn't more clean energy sustain more biodiversity over time, by replacing dirty fossil fuels that are baking the atmosphere? Shouldn' can you...I mean...
Then I recenter by reminding myself what this situation is not. Doing so takes me back to imperial Britain, via a poem by the aristocratic Alfred, Lord Tennyson called "The Charge of the Light Brigade".
It's not about energy, but about war and duty. The 600 soldiers in the brigade rammed their way into failure because, in his telling, they could no more feasibly express their preferences than they could grow spare heads. Tennyson wrote: "Theirs not to make reply/theirs not to question why/theirs but to do and die."
For better or worse, the Inflation Reduction Act comprises mainly a set of incentives - not mandates. (One notable exception involves fees on methane leakage, which we'll talk about next month.) Much of its rallying conscripts nobody. Everybody can question why, and many in do.
So the salient questions become ones about engaging and honoring citizens with more acuity as the need for faster results registers hotter.
How would a city or state reform siting approvals to balance deployment speed, habitat protection, and cost? Would the agrivoltaic model we show in the photo, in which farmers host solar arrays that provide shade and protect pollinators, offer clues for other collaborations between preservation and development? 
Who would have final say over tradeoffs between habitat and energy supply? 
Through workshops and training, can residents learn to live on energy budgets that they can satisfy in large measure from a network of microgrids  -which would mean smaller or fewer installations on less land? (Think about Jimmy Carter's legacy here.)
Through other online and offline learning, can developers and people advocating for wilderness come to broad consensus? Can they work together to compel utilities to move faster? 
What economic models can't easily capture happens in classrooms, in parking lots, over Thanksgiving dinner, and even on social media. And it's there that advocates for the brighter future can and must hone our listening skills, articulate the world we've committed to, and demand more and fuller learning when we vote. We'll need new materials and new designs for our arrays and batteries, and new software and new methods for our presentations and outreach. 
And we can't evolve those things on a straight line, like Tennyson's light brigade. Then again, they rode into what the poet calls the Valley of Death and came out only through ode. As any founder or angel investor knows, there is another side to energy finance's valleys of death  - and it's one we reach by listening to all sorts of questions.