A rezoning request for a proposed solar energy farm in Alachua County got spiked earlier this month after the Sierra Club and a handful of environmental special interest groups joined forces with the NAACP to kill the project. “Environmental racism” became a central theme of the opposition, and was cited by commissioners in their votes against the plan. The planned solar farm, a 650 acre project backed by Duke Energy, would have generated nearly 75 megawatts of clean, renewable energy for the community.
The project went down by a narrow vote of 3-2, despite county staff recommending approval.
The project had already gotten a clean bill of health from environmental regulators, who pointed out that once construction was complete, the site would operate quietly, out of sight, behind a 50-foot deep vegetative barrier set back more than 150 feet from the road, far exceeding the county’s requirements for industrial zoning. From an economic perspective, it was projected to have generated $200,000 in local tax revenue while creating 200 construction jobs in the community. The project was slated to break ground later this year.
Now, though, the project is dead, thanks in part to environmental activist groups like the Sierra Club, which prioritized social justice over their environmental agenda in the wake of the protests and civil unrest over the summer. The group leveraged concerns brought up by the NAACP to oppose the project on the grounds that a nearby African American community wasn’t properly consulted prior to moving ahead with the project.
“While advancing renewable energy is essential for the sustainability of the county, the state and the nation,” wrote the Sierra Club’s Florida Chapter in a letter to the county, “it is also essential that communities of color, which have experienced a historic and ongoing marginalization, have meaningful and substantive opportunities to meet with project managers and with county officials to understand and influence the decisions made regarding their communities.”
Another group, Tallahassee-based reTHINK ENERGY FLORIDA, claims to have a similar mission to the Sierra Club. Their mission statement says the group envisions a world where communities are motivated and empowered to combat the effects of climate change, and where 100% of clean and renewable energy is available and affordable to all. Florida communities will unite in protecting and preserving their environment and lead the nation in developing more sustainable and energy independent communities.
But in its letter to Alachua County commissioners, reTHINK ENERGY FLORIDA’s agenda also took a back seat to social justice.
“As the environmental community stands with social justice and racial equity movements propelled by Black Lives Matter and the death of George Floyd, we are being called to action,” wrote Kim Ross, reTHINK ENERGY’s Executive Director. “It is crucial that environmental organizations and other stakeholders begin conversations about equity, not only equity of where fossil-fuel plants are sited, but also where the ever increasing (and happily so) renewable plants are cited [sic].”
In voting against the project, a pair of Alachua County Commissioners, Chuck Chestnut and Marihelen Wheeler pointed to their concerns about environmental racism, while Commissioner Ken Cornell cited concerns that the project was simply ill suited for the area. According to the Alachua Chronicle:
“Let’s face it. There is racial issues and racial tensions in this community. It’s everywhere, man,” said Commissioner Chuck Chestnut. “I mean, even from the president down, you can’t tell me that that doesn’t have an effect. And then so you have a community that calls environmental racism and then we turn a deaf ear to it and say ‘oh, this is not environmental racism?'”
Two other commissioners, Mike Byerly and Robert Hutchinson voted in favor of the project.
Byerly said he favors building “as much solar power as we can in the next 30 or 40 years,” according to the Chronicle. “If an argument had been made that this site is bad and it’s unfair and there was good evidence for that, then I might be thinking twice. That argument has not been made here tonight or any of our previous meetings.”
Duke Energy, which announced a grant of more than $1 million to racial equity and social justice movement in June, took the vote in stride.
“Duke Energy takes these concerns very seriously,” said Ana Gibbs, a spokeswoman for the company. “Powering the lives of our customers and the vitality of our communities is our purpose. We are determined to develop better partnerships and are always open to making improvements that benefit our customers. We want to grow even stronger relationships so we can create stronger communities. Duke Energy works hard to ensure all of the communities we operate in, and every project the company is a part of, adheres to our core values of safety, integrity and service. These fundamental values ensure that the decisions we make today are the right decisions for tomorrow. We are committed to collaborating on resolutions that provide cleaner, smarter energy solutions to benefit all of our Florida customers.”
Despite the concerns raised by the special interest groups, experts testifying before the commission explained that if a solar plant wasn’t built on the site, it would likely be sold and developed by a new owner, which would still result in the same concerns raised by the environmental groups, which would be powerless to stop it since it’s already zoned for residential construction.