by Jon Sanders
Research Editor and Senior Fellow, Regulatory Studies, John Locke Foundation
It’s bad enough that the solar industry’s “economic impact” studies exclude all costs from their models — even pretending some costs are “benefits.”
It’s bad enough that their lobby fights common-sense environmental protections for farmland used as solar facilities — reclamation bonds, protections that are standard for most other uses (and required by the federal government for solar facilities placed on public lands).
This, however, is something worse:
“I’ve been called crazy. I’ve been threatened. My job’s been threatened. I really don’t want to advertise my issue very much anymore,” said [Ron] Heiniger, who works at [North Carolina State University’s] Vernon G. James Research and Extension Center in Plymouth.
Left unchecked, Heiniger says, replacing prime farmland with utility-scale solar projects could destabilize a fragile agricultural ecosystem. He warns about soil erosion, leaching contaminants, and ruining soil for future crop growth.
Heiniger and Herb Eckerlin, an N.C. State professor emeritus of the College of Engineering, said they were silenced by the university. Cooperative Extension agents across the state were ordered to cancel popular public forums they had arranged independently to discuss pros and cons of the state’s rapid solar growth.
State lawmakers have jumped in, asking university officials if they have stifled viewpoints that don’t align with those of the solar lobby.
Let’s not mince words. This would fly in the face of North Carolina State’s mission, and it would be a direct affront to the integrity of higher education and an insult to the good people of North Carolina whose taxes support the university.
If a university let a different powerful industry push it around like this, media and academics would rightly be up in arms. It should be to their shame they’ve allowed themselves to be lulled by the siren song of (falsely) presumed environmental virtue.
Local officials, higher education watchdogs, and grass-roots observers question whether N.C. State’s North Carolina Clean Energy Technology Center is a tax-supported lobbying arm of the North Carolina Sustainable Energy Association disguised as an academic pursuit.
Heiniger and Eckerlin had been working with county and municipal governments to understand the complexities of proposed large commercial solar projects. They were encouraged to launch a speaking tour for farmers and other interested parties at county Cooperative Extension offices.
“I vetted my materials through people in my department, and I’ve shared my slides to everybody who’s asked for them,” Heiniger said. “In the university I’ve had nobody argue against what my concerns are. In fact, I’ve had very many people in academics agree 100 percent.”
Neither Heiniger nor Eckerlin, who designed the Solar House at N.C. State, founded its Solar Center, and was instrumental in creating the N.C. Sustainable Energy Association, oppose solar energy. They said they were interested in full disclosure about pros and cons so that government officials and North Carolina residents could make informed decisions about the renewable industry.
The implication is clear. If you oppose educational efforts to give people complete information about your product, you know they wouldn’t choose it voluntarily. (Of course, the solar lobby has demonstrated this knowledge time and time again.)
But there is absolutely no excuse for a university, a seat of higher learning, to oppose educational efforts, silence its own researchers, and fight giving people complete information.