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Duke Energy solar farm the latest in long history of 'not in my backyard' controversies

Solar farms have upset residents who think they are unsightly and lower property values. [Times (2011)]
Solar farms have upset residents who think they are unsightly and lower property values. [Times (2011)]
Published Mar. 4

It's safe to say that electricity is universally popular, even if there's little polling on the matter.

The Census doesn't ask: Do you like it when your lights come on? That's because we take the answer for granted. We not only like that our lights turn on, we demand it.

But for nearly as long as we've built large-scale electrical plants, we've argued over where to put them, with one refrain: Not in my backyard.

It's no wonder. Coal plants belch sulphur dioxide, among other nasty things. Natural gas isn't as dirty, but it spews nitrogen oxides. Both contribute to smog. Asthma anyone?

Fears over meltdowns and radiation accompanied the nuclear building boom of the 1970s and '80s. There's also the matter of storing and transporting nuclear waste, which remains radioactive for so long that NASA has studied what it would take to shoot it into space.

More recently, wind turbines have been attacked as loud, ugly bird murderers. Solar arrays — quiet and emissions free, at least once built — haven't avoided the fray. In California, environmentalists balked that a 1,767-acre Mojave Desert solar project would inhibit wildlife from migrating and adapting to climate change.

Closer to home, a proposed solar farm on 800 rural acres in Hernando County has residents crying foul. Tampa Bay Times staff writer Jack Evans reported last week that they worry the Duke Energy array will create glare, ruin their views and erode property values.

It's unclear how this controversy will play out. The residents, the utility, elected leaders and Florida A&M University, which controls the 800 acres, will have to work through their differences. But whatever the outcome, don't be surprised to see more battles over where to build utilty-scale solar arrays.

Conservation efforts and improvements like energy-efficient appliances have kept electricity consumption in check. But as aging power plants close and the population grows, the state will need to keep up with demand.

For decades, coal was king in Florida, but natural gas took the top spot starting in 2003, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Today, natural gas accounts for more than two-thirds of the state's electricity output. Coal has fallen to less than one-sixth. Our two remaining nuclear facilities and several plants that burn petroleum, biomass or garbage account for most of the rest.

As coal plants close, they aren't being replaced by other coal plants. Building new nuclear plants has proven much too costly. And Florida has little additional hydroelectric or wind capacity.

That leaves natural gas and solar.

After a slow start, especially given that this is the Sunshine State, the major utilities have warmed to building large arrays. The energy they produce remains a blip compared to natural gas, but more of them are being proposed.

Utility-scale projects, however, need a lot space. So to make financial sense, they often pop up in rural areas where land is cheap.

Those are the same places that attract residents who put a premium on unobstructed views and low-stress living, like the ones Evans featured in his article about the brewing Hernando County controversy.

Not in our backyards, they said. Just like countless residents before them.

Contact Graham Brink at gbrink@tampabay.com. Follow @GrahamBrink.

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