Large-Scale Solar Energy Build-Out Requires Community Engagement

May 21, 2024

Green energy production and total decarbonization of the domestic energy grid will require the implementation of renewables at an unprecedented scale. Estimates of what we need to achieve a net-zero emissions economy by 2050 show solar could provide 40 percent of total energy production; in 2024, solar will only produce 6 percent of electricity in the United States. One study finds that the US would have to bring online two new 400 MW, 2,000-acre solar power facilities every week for the next 30 years to reach net-zero—a more modest climate goal than what may be necessary. There’s a long way to go, and reaching necessary green energy milestones will require massive mobilization of domestic production, available land, and large-scale planning. 

At the same time, policymakers must address diverse community and environmental concerns through deliberate policy design. History shows us that failure to address community concerns around large-scale federal projects will only serve to deepen existing inequities, slow overall deployment, and open the door for serious political backlash to these necessary energy developments. The construction of the American interstate highway system and the deployment of solar energy in Spain offer useful lessons on what happens when the policy design and planning of otherwise-successful state projects fail to fully consider community concerns. 


Dangers of Inequitable Planning: The Federal Highway System

Few federal works projects compare to the federal highway system in scale and scope. This program connected federal financing with local implementation in a manner akin to what is needed for the deployment of solar power. Lessons learned from this program—particularly those related to failures in ensuring equity—are critical to get the next federal works project right.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s interstate highway system mobilized construction at an unprecedented scale, but had severely detrimental impacts on Black communities and city centers in America. Inspired by the efficiency of the German Autobahn, President Eisenhower signed the $25 billion Federal Aid-Highway Act of 1956 to construct over 41,000 miles of highways across the country. However, like many federal works projects in the United States, the highway system has a deeply racist history. The project connected city centers and suburbs, often by building straight through historically Black and brown communities. Homes, schools, churches, and businesses were replaced with freeways that paved over previously thriving communities and left the remaining residents with dangerous levels of pollution. By the 1960s, highway construction was demolishing 37,000 housing units each year in urban areas. Often, the destruction was deliberate. Highways were sometimes built along racial zoning boundaries in response to community members who asked highway builders to create a barrier between their community and Black communities. Meanwhile, federal planners at the time did not believe that any social consequences were their responsibility. As one federal housing official stated in 1957, “It is my impression that regional personnel of the Bureau of Public Roads are not overly concerned with the problems of family relocation.” 

While there are many lessons to be gleaned from the construction of the American interstate highway system, the primary and most pressing is that it is, in fact, the responsibility of the federal government to seriously consider the environmental, equity, and community impacts of a project at every step of the process. The enduring detrimental impacts of highways on Black and brown communities and their health are well established in the media and academia. While no sum can fully repair the damages to mental and physical well-being caused by ignoring equity concerns in the first place, funding in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law seeks to reconnect communities of color divided by highways. Community benefit plans and community solar plans are positive first steps to incorporate local voices by distributing the benefits of renewables. 


Decreasing Costs and Barriers in Spain

Spain is currently one of Europe’s leaders in solar energy production and has cut greenhouse gas emissions by 38 percent since 2007. An aggressive policy regime—starting from the modified feed-in tariff (FIT) in 2007 to present-day remuneration schemes—has lowered costs and reduced barriers for solar energy implementation in the region. The policies increased large-scale utility energy as well as roof-mounted residential and business solar production. In many cases, policymakers shaped regulations with community benefits in mind: For instance, solar self-consumption regulations have provided direct benefit to Spanish communities by offering consumers energy ownership and significantly lower costs. However, some communities have been left behind, jeopardizing the continued sustainability of Spain’s success. The adverse impacts on the agriculture sector and natural lands, as well as permitting and sourcing issues, have slowed deployment in some sectors and inspired political backlash to the projects. 

As I wrote in a previous blog post, Spain’s feed-in tariff and self-production remuneration policies kick-started solar deployment in the region by increasing profitability and garnering widespread social support. From 2007 to 2013, utility-scale renewable energy was largely subsidized by the federal government. Spain’s FIT provided long-term contracts that paid energy producers above-market rates for the renewable electricity they produced. The high profit margins for large solar projects in particular caused a “boom” in solar energy production at the cost of government subsidies, causing a rising deficit in an already financially strained period for Spain. The FIT was repealed in 2013, but efforts to dismantle the broader solar subsidy regime faced severe backlash. Between 2013 and 2020, the government played a less central role in financing utility-scale solar and placed a moratorium on renewable energy auctions. During the same period, Spain’s conservative party’s attempt to tax solar self-consumption was met with fervent political opposition. Under Spain’s socialist party, the country saw a revival of renewable energy auctions in 2020. Currently, private contracts in the form of power purchasing agreements and government-led self-consumption subsidies and auctions are the primary methods of renewable deployment.           

Spanish government subsidies provided to households and businesses allow the average energy consumer to profit from solar production. In 2022, over 200,000 residential solar panels were installed across the country. Though this number dipped to just over 110,000 in 2023, the country is still on track to meet its target of 19 GW of residential and commercial solar by 2030. Spain’s subsidies have lowered costs for solar projects and increased both small and large-scale production.

However, government subsidies are only part of the solution. As one might expect, decreasing costs of solar production has put pressure on permitting in Spain, which the country has addressed time and time again by reviewing guidelines and streamlining smaller projects. This is not to say a backlog does not exist; rather, the country is making continual efforts to address it through expanding regulatory capacity. As a result, Spain has seen both residential and industrial solar power increase significantly since 2010. Solar power self-consumption in particular has risen from 207 MW in 2018 to over 2,500 MW in 2022. The multipronged approach of subsidizing utility-scale and residential solar production, while also bolstering state capacity to address critical backlogs, has pushed Spain to be a global leader in the deployment of solar.

Democratizing solar energy provides value directly to consumers, but cost barriers still prevent many from reaping the benefits. One study shows the numerous advantages of solar self-consumption for Spanish households, including lower energy costs and higher job creation rates than utility-scale solar. Solar subsidies can cover up to 80 percent of the initial installation costs, but many households cannot afford the initial outlay. Solar panels would certainly cut overall energy costs, but many less wealthy Spanish residences and businesses struggle to afford even basic accessibility and energy upgrades—for example, 40 percent of Spain’s residential buildings with four floors or more do not have an elevator. Furthermore, renters often do not have the opportunity to benefit from residential solar self-consumption in the same way as homeowners. 

Agricultural workers and rural communities have also pushed back against the proliferation of solar in their region. Two recent Spanish films touched on this issue, highlighting the tension surrounding the use of rural land for large-scale renewable projects. To address rural concerns of depopulation—which are also relevant to the US—and pressing ecological concerns, some have suggested compensation and democratization of renewable energy. This falls directly in line with recommendations made by Johanna Bozuwa and Dustin Mulvaney in a recent Roosevelt report showing that increasing public capacity for planning, assessment, and community engagement can streamline the renewable build-out while working with local communities. 

Ignoring these concerns not only risks stalling critical deployment of renewables but also has serious political repercussions. Aliente, an NGO in Spain, gained momentum in some rural regions with the slogan “yes to renewables, but not this way.” Spain is not an outlier—across Europe, far-right populist movements have been gaining traction with agricultural workers. Among the recommendations in the report, Bozuwa and Mulvaney suggest energy projects ought to provide clear community benefits—whether in the form of jobs, discounted energy, local infrastructure investments, or direct ownership to receive a portion of the profits. Another study analyzing public responses to offshore wind power found that, “as with onshore developments, the public should be included in decision-making about offshore wind farms, and that they have a key role which should not be underestimated.”



Building enough photovoltaic capacity to reach climate goals will require policies that go beyond subsidies. Spain’s enhanced regulatory mechanisms that decrease both cost and non-cost barriers for energy producers of all sizes can serve as a lesson on the importance of a multipronged approach to deploying solar. Using government-led market mechanisms, legal agreements, and regulatory fixes has unlocked over 25 GW of solar potential in the country. However, any project of this scale must seriously consider broader community and environmental ramifications. Treating these concerns as secondary has severely detrimental impacts for the most vulnerable populations. President Eisenhower’s highway project, for example, tore through historically Black and brown communities, causing both short-term displacement and long-term health effects. The United States faces a similar equity problem with solar and other clean technologies such as heat pumps. Subsidies will only go so far, as many families cannot afford the initial outlay. Concrete steps that increase democratic accountability throughout the deployment process and democratize solar energy production—including multi-solving, engaging communities, and prioritizing conservation (i.e., not tearing down forests for solar plants)—can center communities and ensure a more equitable renewable transition.