At age 23, I had one of the most profound experiences of my young career when I saw the scale of green energy projects needed to tackle climate change firsthand.
For three hours on a Thursday morning in November 2015, I drove through the Santa Ynez Mountains onto the Carrizo Plain northeast of Los Angeles to the $1.3 billion California Valley Solar Ranch. Spanning 1,966 acres, 749,088 solar panels provide enough electricity to power 100,000 hungry homes along California's coastline and offset 336,000 tons of carbon emissions each year.
Engineers meticulously designed the solar arrays around the farm's sensitive grasslands, taking into account 1,400 wildlife species that live on the property including condors, kit foxes and even ferry shrimp, tiny crustaceans that lie dormant as cysts in the soil and hatch when they get wet.
Here, near our home in Columbia, a Chicago-based company recently proposed to build a wind farm near Harrisburg, that like the California Valley Solar Ranch, will primarily benefit city dwellers. At a recent meeting at the town's high school, several Harrisburg residents expressed concerns about the project, which could generate about 150 megawatts of power when — and if — it is built.
Residents expressed concerns about light pollution, obstructed countryside views and impacts on surrounding property values.
So first, let's look at why the state needs this project.
Climate change is real, and eventually we Midwesterners will feel the effects.
Last year, 13 federal agencies warned that climate change could cost the economy $200 billion by the year 2100. The report warned that farmers in areas like Harrisburg may feel some of the largest losses in the Midwest because the number of warm-season days is expected to increase more than in any other region of the U.S. by the end of the century.
Just last Wednesday, the United Nations warned that air pollution and environmental consequences from climate change could lead to millions of deaths over the next few decades.
"Urgent action at an unprecedented scale is necessary to arrest and reverse this situation," The U.N. report said. "Thereby protecting human and environmental health and maintain the current and future integrity of global ecosystems."
In 2008 the state took a small step when 66 percent of voters approved a measure which mandated investor-owned utilities get 15 percent of their energy from renewable energy sources by 2021. Columbia voters approved a local renewable energy standard in 2004. A 2014 update mandated the city must get 30 percent of its energy from renewable sources by the end 2028.
On Friday, Gov. Lujan Grisham of New Mexico signed a law mandating that state convert entirely to renewable, non-carbon energy sources by 2045.
Still, even without taking on the big dogs of renewable energy like California or New Mexico, Missouri lags behind its neighbors. In 2018 Oklahoma had the second-largest wind-energy capacity installed nationwide with 7,495 megawatts, according to the Iowa Farm Bureau. Our neighbors to the north in the Hawkeye state had the third-largest wind energy capacity installed with 7,312 megawatts.
Even Kansas and Illinois are kicking our butts. Kansas had 5,110 megawatts of wind energy capacity and Illinois had 4,464 megawatts of wind energy installed.
Missouri? Just 959 megawatts.
Other residents expressed concerns about renewables' impact on health. Study after study has shown that vibrations from wind farms pose no risk to human health, according to the National Institutes of Heath.
Residents also expressed concerns about the impact of the project on birds. Again, study after study has found that wind farms are not the bird slayers they are thought to be.
A 2009 study using U.S. and European data concluded wind farms kill between 0.3 and 0.4 birds per gigawatt-hour, while fossil-fuel power stations kill about 5.2 birds per gigawatt-hour, according to trade publication phys.org.
All of this is to say that Harrisburg residents have a right to be peeved at city dwellers. Across the country, renewable energy projects primarily benefit residents the farthest from the energy sources.
The Golden State recently took a step to address this imbalance and shift a greater energy-production burden to cities.
In December the California Building Standards Commission voted unanimously to require homes built in 2020 or later to be affixed with solar panels. Energy officials estimated the change would add about $10,000 to the cost of single-family homes, according to the Orange County Register.
In Missouri that idea still seems far fetched and futuristic. The state needs large and small-scale renewable energy projects if future generations want to live in a hospitable environment.
But as progress is made, rural communities like Harrisburg cannot bear the entire burden.
Philip Joens is the business and economic development reporter for the Tribune. He can be reached at email@example.com.