What The Climate Movement Can Learn From Battles Over Solar Arrays

Apr 22, 2020

Solar panels on an older house in Philadelphia in 2011.
Credit Matt Rourke / AP Photo

This is part two in a three-part series on solar energy.

Rick Freiman of Portage can’t put solar panels on his roof because his homeowner association thinks they would look out of place. But he’s not the only person, in Michigan or the rest of the country, to have that problem. In Washington, D.C. a historic district made a similar call a few months ago. That got the attention of David Roberts, a self-described climate “hawk” who writes for the online news source Vox.


Roberts says local fights over things like solar panels hold “lessons” for the climate movement.

“It’s very easy to feel superior from the outside of these things, but I think in the end, all of us, everyone, is going to face some decision like this,” Roberts told WMUK.

“Am I going to sacrifice some of my comfort, some of my creature comforts, some of my sense of safety and predictability for this larger effort? The question is going to come for everybody eventually.”

Interview

Sehvilla Mann: When you hear about historic districts or homeowner associations turning down something like solar panels, are you ready to throw up your hands?

David Roberts: If climate people were prone to throwing up their hands every time they encountered yet another difficulty or setback they’d all be in big trouble. This is just the nature of the struggle.

SM: I think some people, though, must be scratching their heads, saying ‘OK, solar panels, they don’t make noise, the PV ones aren’t really implicated in the killing of birds. Why would somebody have a problem with them?’

DR: It’s peculiar, I mean, I guess it’s no more peculiar than a lot of things people treasure about their personal lives, the things they see every day, the routes they drive every day. I mean, people get attached to very specific things and they like to keep them that way, that’s the root of it.

It is ironic – say you’re living in a historical preservation district in D.C. which is what one of the Washington Post stories was about. When those houses were built, there were no cars, right? So every time you look at one of those houses and see a car parked in front of it, you’re seeing something that’s not historically accurate.

But we don’t object to that, or they don’t object to that, for the simple reason that they’ve just become so used to cars that they don’t even see them, they just look right past them. We look past what we’re used to. And the only notable thing about PV panels – as you say, they don’t make noise, they’re about as anodyne as just sort of like quietly sitting in the background as you could possibly have.

The only thing to say about them is that they’re different. That’s all. It’s just a different, you’re seeing something different than what you were seeing before. And for a lot of people they just don’t want those things that they’re familiar with in their day-to-day lives to change.

SM: If you don’t eat that burger or you don’t take that flight, that itself is not going to save the climate. You can kind of say to yourself, well, this isn’t even a drop, it isn’t even a drop of a drop in the bucket so I’m just going to go ahead and do it. Do you think that’s in effect here?

DR: Yes, that’s a huge part of it. In a certain sense that’s legitimate. As the woman said in the Washington Post story, ‘these solar panels on this house across from me in our historic district are going to make virtually no difference to climate change.’ And that’s absolutely true. One set of solar panels on one roof are like a tiny microdroplet in an ocean compared to what’s going to have to happen.

‘But,’ she says, ‘They’re a big change to me. They’re tiny to climate change but they’re big to me because my personal experience is dominated by this view of this other house, and will be changed.’ So in a sense she’s kind of right about that, right? It’s a big thing to her, and a small thing to climate change.

But here’s the problem. Every individual thing you can do for climate change is going to be small relative to climate change, because climate change is huge. Even if the entire United States stopped emitting greenhouse gases tomorrow, even that would be, on the grand scheme of things, relatively small for climate change. The whole world needs to do this.

SM: This distaste for change, it sounds like it does have consequences for the global climate movement.

DR: No matter how grand and sweeping your plan is, ultimately it’s got to be implemented, and ultimately the people who are implementing it, at the end of the line, are people at the local level. That’s where people live. That’s where people have their existence and their psychological surroundings, is at this local level. So no matter how big and bold your climate policy, at the end of the line there’s a neighborhood council somewhere that’s got to do the stuff that your policy says to do.

So I do think that climate people, climate reformers, need to think about this stuff more. At the very least, they need to think more about social psychology and how to address these kind of concerns and how to make people feel secure during a big change.

SM: If we face, instead of that big grand moment that changes everything, lots and lots of little decisions as you say, what’s a climate hawk to do?

DR: There’s some historical precedent for social systems, they seem like they’re frozen in place, they seem like they’re untouchable forever, but pressures build beneath the surface. You get these hairline fractures and one day, a seemingly small trigger can come along and just set off, like just shatter the thing and set of really, really rapid, wholesale change.

I think we sort of saw something like this happen in the U.S. with gay marriage. So it’s like, entrenched fight-fight-fight, no one moved, no one made any progress, nothing happened, and then during the mid-Obama years it just seemed like everything happened. Right? The Supreme Court and this case and that case and this politician and that politician. And now you can’t, the things people were saying about gay marriage, politicians were saying about gay marriage 10 years ago sound like they might have been 100 years ago to us. We live in a different world now.

The hope is that you fight all these little battles, not because you’re going to build little battles up until they’re something big. The hope is that you fight all these little battles and that at a certain point the system itself, the internal tensions become so great that you end up triggering, these little efforts end up triggering big rapid changes.

Several years ago, lawmakers told Michigan utilities that they didn’t have to accept more than a certain amount of energy from “distributed” sources – i.e., from customers with a wind, solar or other renewable installation. Michigan solar installers say they’re about to hit that limit – and it will devastate their industry. In part 3 of the series, we'll hear from supporters of legislation that would lift the cap.