In 2016, the renewables developer Hecate Energy began plans to develop Shepherd’s Run Solar, a 60-megawatt, 255-acre solar farm that promised jobs, tax revenues and co-located agricultural projects such as grazing, farming and beekeeping. Despite the area’s left-leaning politics and leadership, some members of the Copake community quickly created a nonprofit organization, Sensible Solar for Rural New York. Opposing the project, they argued it would “adversely impact Copake’s natural resources, farmland, wildlife and habitats, rural viewsheds, property values and tourism — and agriculture-dependent economy.” Local supporters of the project spun up an opposing NGO, Friends of Columbia Solar. This NGO argued that the state’s goal of decarbonizing by 2050 cannot be met without constructing hundreds of large solar farms like this one. The problem is that they both may be right.
Back in the 1970s, there was an explosion of new federal environmental statutes, quickly followed by state and local initiatives. Viewed from today’s vantage, there seems to have been an unspoken bargain: In exchange for a cleaner environment, these laws would modify, slow and even stop traditional “brown” infrastructure such as highways, oil pipelines and industrial facilities. It proved a good bargain. While economic growth in the United States has increased more than five-fold since the 1970s, by most measures our environment is much cleaner.
The problem today is that laws designed to slow and stop traditional infrastructure can equally slow and stop environmentally beneficial infrastructure.