39

The Raonoke Chowan News Herald reported on 8 December 2015 reports that the town of Woodland, North Carolina, USA rejected a solar farm, citing concerns on photosynthesis and cancer:

Jane Mann said she is a local native and is concerned about the plants that make the community beautiful.

She is a retired Northampton science teacher and 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.

...and quoting another resident:

Bobby Mann said he watched communities dry up when I-95 came along and warned that would happen to Woodland because of the solar farms.

“You’re killing your town,” he said. “All the young people are going to move out.”

He said the solar farms would suck up all the energy from the sun and businesses would not come to Woodland.

The content screams satire at me, but I cannot find any hint that this article or the entire Raonoke Chowan News Herald is satirical — it appears to be a serious article. Comments on the article state the same. It was picked up by Russia Today, probably to give the impression that Americans are ridiculous. But is the article truthful? Did the town of Woodland, North Carolina, USA really reject a solar farm citing concerns about cancer and energy from the Sun being sucked up?

Please tell me it isn't.

  • 10
    +1 I literally came here to ask this exact question, I had the same thought - "this must be a hoax, please say this is a hoax, I'm going to Skeptics.SE"... thanks for saving me the time! – user568458 Dec 13 '15 at 20:16
  • 6
    I consider Russia Today as capable of picking up news that was intended as satire. – gerrit Dec 13 '15 at 20:48
  • 2
    @gerrit I found the town website, but they haven't posted any town meeting minutes on it. I have emailed them though to request a copy. We'll see what happens. – Larian LeQuella Dec 13 '15 at 22:53
  • 3
    @LarianLeQuella It's also possible that the science teacher quote is taken out of context (or even flat out wrong), and that it was involved in a long monologue about overheating tortoises (which is still not terribly relevant, but less idiotic) but that the journalist preferred the other story. The article also doesn't quite say that the council rejected the solar panels because of the input of a few crazy residents; there might have been other reasons not mentioned in the article. – gerrit Dec 13 '15 at 22:57
  • 6
    My strong suspicion is that there's some other 3rd party interest group who, for whatever reason (different ambitions for the same patch of land?) want to scupper the solar farm deal; that they encouraged anti-solar scaremongering, hence the strange objections, and, separately, they lobbied the councillors, hence the voting. So the strange objections didn't cause the voting, nor are they coincidental; both were encouraged by a third-party interest group. I've not yet been able to think of a fruitful way to investigate this possibility, however. – user568458 Dec 13 '15 at 23:25
35

I decided to communicate directly with the town itself. The response to my email is reproduced below:

Please read the interview with Mayor Manuel on (witn.com). Also, there will be a message from the Mayor on our website (townofwoodlandnc.com) by this afternoon. During our Board meetings public comments are always welcomed and we listen to anything a person has to say. Please be advised however, this particular vote by our Board was not based on certain comments as the media portrayed. Thank you for your interest in our Town.

Following the first link to WITN, they did indeed interview the mayor. The first part of the story states (emphasis mine):

When a Northampton County resident said the building of a new solar farm would "suck up all the energy from the sun," the comment received international attention.

But officials in the small town of Woodland say that concern isn't the reason a solar farm proposal was rejected.

The mayor goes on to say:

"With this 4th solar farm being proposed we're looking at being cornered in on all 4 corners primarily of the town and the citizens of the town felt they did not want that," Manuel said. This was supported by a petition signed by 80 residents

So this was a decision based on zoning laws, not the unfounded concerns of the citizens, but rather more legitimate concerns regarding the use of the land.

The town itself has posted a PDF document explaining the reasons they rejected the proposal on their website. SOme additional concerns about the fourth site are mentioned in that PDF:

All three of the proposed sites were in locations that were elevated, or partially obscured from the roadway view. The fourth proposed solar farm site is located on 42 acres of open farm land at the East entrance of the town limits, off of State Highway 258.

So this would seem to align more with what is commonly referred to as NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard). The first three sites were not visible, but this fourth one appears to be visible to more of the town's population.

The document goes on to state:

The town council's decision to deny the rezoning of this fourth proposed solar farm site was due, in part, to a circulated petition by a group of concerned town citizens opposing the change of zoning for this fourth site. The citizens opposed the site location, because to grant the zoning request would create a situation in which the town would be completely surrounded by solar farms.

So, while it may be humerous to laugh at a perceived "small town yokel" that makes some assertions that are wildly detached from reality, it would be unwise to paint the entire proceedings with the broad brush of one or two individuals. While the town has not posted detailed minutes, the interview on the news site, as well as the town post, seem to agree in essence with what was said on Snopes, although I would say that it's not quite "Mostly" true, instead a mixed bag.

I would rate the reporting of this entire incident as wildly hyperbolic, and I do feel sorry for the media attention this town and decision has garnered.

  • Nice persistence Larian! :) – JasonR Dec 16 '15 at 21:03
  • Being from a small town that I love, I don't mind negative attention, even if it's false. It keeps my beloved small town just the way I like it. The residents of Woodland probably feel the same way. – fredsbend Jul 28 '16 at 20:13
6

This claim is only partly true.

The original Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald story, by Keith Hoggard, describes how the town of Woodland, North Carolina rejected a solar farm, with some constituents citing concerns about the affect on photosynthesis and the risk of cancer. Three other solar farms have already been accepted by the town council, with one currently under construction. The council eventually voted for a complete delay or suspension on future solar farms in Woodland Town.

However, the reason for this suspension is not (merely) for the reasons suggested.

Doubtful News reports:

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 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.

The UK Telegraph reports:

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.

Is there an environmental or health risk?

According to a 1981 article in Environmental Management, Health and safety implications of alternative energy technologies. II. Solar, no energy technology can be confirmed or determined risk-free when all its utilization aspects are taken into account. Every energy technology is known to have some direct and indirect health and safety concerns.

  1. Research shows that installed silicon-based cells pose minimal risks to human health or the environment. The operation of solar photovolatic systems does not produce any emissions.

  2. No water is used during the operation of photo-voltaic systems, except for when modules are cleaned. In addition, the water quality impacts are considered to be minimal.

PV systems emit no GHGs or air pollutants during normal operation. The material extraction and production stages account for almost all emissions in the PV life cycle. The largest concern is associated with fluorinated GHG emissions. Recent trends show that releases of these gases are on the decline, which may be attributed to more efficient manufacturing processes and the use of alternative substances.

  1. Research also shows that when the solar power plants are built using best management practices, they might provide a positive effect on biodiversity.

Ground-mounted applications can have a significant, though localized, impacts on landscape and ecology. Rooftop applications use less land because they are mounted on existing structures. As module efficiency increases, land use will decrease. However, it has been demonstrated that when PV power plants are constructed using best management practices, they can provide a positive benefit to biodiversity. Another benefit of PV power plants is that they can be located on marginal lands and brownfields. They can also be used on higher-quality lands in conjunction with grazing livestock and crops.

  • 1
    It is still not clear where the quote starting PV systems is from. – Oddthinking Dec 15 '15 at 10:27
  • 2
    The Doubtful News and Telegraph articles seem to be mostly speculation as well. – gerrit Dec 15 '15 at 11:14
4

Snopes.com are on the case. First, their verdict:

CLAIM: Residents of a North Carolina town rejected the local installation of a solar farm over fears the technology was harmful.

MOSTLY TRUE

WHAT'S TRUE: A North Carolina town rejected the further installation of solar panels; some residents registered fears that the panels would disrupt the local ecosystem, while many others worried property values would be affected.

WHAT'S FALSE: Concerns hinged solely on the dangers of solar panels.

As for their evidence and reasoning, they mostly draw on analysis of existing reports, highlighting that the more outlandish claims weren't the only objections:

While both [speakers] cited ambient fears about the panels' effect on the local ecosystem, the latter concern spoke more directly to general worries about large-scale changes to the local economy.

They also did research of their own - directly questioning the journalist who broke the story:

We contacted the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald and spoke to author Keith Hoggard about the article and its unexpected reach. He confirmed that The Independent's take was mostly accurate, and that the residents didn't want another solar panel installation.

However, it's worth mentioning that Hoggard's original article mainly addressed residents' concerns about the impact of multiple solar farms on property values and local commerce. Some residents expressed fears about solar panel safety, but they were not the sole voices of dissent at the council meeting.

(this is the Independent article referred to, which had one of the most outrageous headlines, phrased "US town scraps solar panels in case they suck up all the sun’s energy" in the shortened version on their homepage):

If their "mostly true" conclusion seems surprising when there were economic concerns raised as well as the wilder safety concerns, keep in mind that it appears the two concerns were not wholly separate.

Some of the economic fears appear rooted in general economic gloom: (from Snopes' summary - and note that none of the original reports give any more detail on why it's theorised that the local expansion success of the solar industry would harm the town economically)

...some residents simply worried that the burgeoning solar industry would further depress the local economy and tank the values of their homes (asserting that such damage had already been done.

...but some economic fears were rooted in the safety fears: (from the original report)

“You’re killing your town,” [Bobby Mann] said. “All the young people are going to move out.”

He said the solar farms would suck up all the energy from the sun and businesses would not come to Woodland.


Like with other sources investigating the claim, it's difficult to give a complete answer because the councillors' don't need to publish the reasons for their votes. So far, they appear to have chosen to not comment (this might change).

One important thing highlighted however is that it wasn't just one solar farm application rejected - the town proposed and the councillors voted for a moratorium on all new solar farm developments. So the explanation must be about solar farms in general, and not the particulars of any one farm application.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .