Sarah Mills

De-Escalating the Conversation Around Siting Renewable Energy

October 4, 2023 |

An interview with Dr. Sarah Mills, zoning and siting researcher.

Interview by Jeff Smith, Communications Director

Dr. Sarah Mills has studied local issues relating to siting renewable energy infrastructure both as a student and now as Director of Graham’s Center for EmPowering Communities, at the University of Michigan Graham Sustainability Institute. Along the way she has earned wide respect for her technical knowledge and intuitive ability to understand and connect with people of local communities. 

Today Sarah’s expertise is more important than ever because for Michigan, the nation, and the planet, rapidly siting renewable energy infrastructure is essential for combating global warming, but constituencies in many communities are pushing back on renewable projects. Michigan’s exhibit A: In May 2023, seven elected local officials were recalled because they supported renewable energy siting. Renewable energy proponents have even had their cars keyed and received anonymous threats. [Suggested read: Conservatives who lead on clean energy build-outSarah and her team are working to help communities develop zoning rules and processes that de-escalate those heated encounters while enabling farmland to play a key role in meeting our nation’s clean energy targets. As her bio on the Graham website states:  “Sarah’s research considers how energy development impacts rural communities, and in turn how state and local policies facilitate or hinder renewable energy development.”

Give us a thumbnail sketch of your work with siting in rural communities these days.
Dr. Sarah Mills: Our work largely focuses on planning and zoning for renewables. I have tools that apply to small rooftop solar and backyard turbines, but most of our research is tied to utility scale wind and solar. We wrote a guidebook on solar zoning, and we are working on one for battery storage. We also conduct research on the impacts renewable energy has on communities, particularly public perceptions.

Solar panel field. Photo by Andreas Gucklhorn

“Zoning conversations are not easy, but they are conversations that have to happen.”— Sarah Mills

Please describe a couple of specific projects for us.
We have a nationwide survey going of people in farming communities who live within 3 miles of a solar project. We’re asking how did the planning process go? What should the planning process look like? What kind of land should projects be sited on? In the future, what would they like to see?

Another project is looking at the economics of large solar projects in farming communities. We’re interviewing people with solar on their land and what they are doing with the income they are receiving. For example, are they reinvesting the money into the farm or not? I tell people my Ph.D. is in farmland preservation, not energy. My research into wind was because it became a farmland preservation tool in Michigan’s Gratiot and Huron Counties.

Tell us about the friction points you see in communities.
It starts with what do people mean by farmland preservation. Is it preserving farming as a livelihood? Preserving land to grow food? Preserving land for its value as a vista? People get concerned when you take 2,000 acres out of corn and soy beans for solar, but what are the positive benefits that solar brings? Higher taxes for additional spending at the government level, and more money for the farm family. But even that is not simple. Does a farm couple retire and go to Florida, taking the dollars with them, and out of the community? Also, is the land leased or purchased? Some operators buy land outright from farmers, so that’s a one-time infusion of cash, which has a different impact on the local economy than annual payments. Is it the whole farm or a portion of the farm? If a farm sells, that’s less grain processed in the community and then fewer tractors sold. From studying subdivision impacts we know there can be a tipping point where farming is no longer viable. All those factors and more play into the impacts.

The research is still underway, but is a picture coming into focus as to net impacts of converting farmland to energy production?
We are close to knowing. We still have to have the economic model peer reviewed. But from what I can see, it’s not a slam dunk answer. Not universally bad, not universally good. It appears though, that it matters a whole lot if this is a portion of somebody’s farm or all of their land. And it matters if they are selling or leasing. In the middle ground is when someone retires, leases to a solar company, and stays in the community, along with the money. In places where land is super valuable or super productive, solar is not as good a deal as where land is not as valuable or productive.