North Carolina town's idiocy, news media's incompetence, blogosphere's imposture

The shocker headline, A US town has rejected a proposal for a solar farm following public concerns that solar panels ‘suck up all the energy from the sun’ is such a good illustration that the word following is a journalistic weasel word that it has been added to the list of ways which so-called journalists (as well as real ones) mislead us here on Monochromatic Outlook. The headline from the primary source reads, Woodland rejects solar farm. The first headline implies a speculative conclusion; the second reports facts. But the truth is deeper—and more troubling—than either headline lets on.

The Woodland North Carolina Town Council did indeed reject a proposal to rezone a plot of land from Residential/Agricultural to Industrial, for the landowner’s stated desire to create a solar panel farm on that land. And yes, some hilarious and disturbing comments were made during the public comment portion of the Town Council meeting.

It’s frightening how ill-informed those comments were. The reasons included the reason cited by David Johnson’s The Cyber Column post headline: local resident Jane Mann1 voiced concerns that «photosynthesis, which depends upon sunlight, would not happen and would keep the vegetation from growing.» She claims to have «observed areas near solar panels where vegetation is brown and dead because it did not receive enough sunlight» (quotes are from the Roanoke-Chowan News Herald article, not necessarily Mrs Mann’s own words.) Of course, the only way this is possible is if she was referring to ground beneath the solar panels, but this isn’t supported by an image search for solar farms and even if it were true, it couldn’t be any worse for that grass than building a barn or pavilion on that land.

Roanoke-Chowan News Herald reports that Mrs Mann went on to raise the question of whether existing solar farms were causing cancer in the community, «saying no one could tell her that solar panels didn’t cause cancer.» Of course, yes, many people could tell her that. There are health risks associated with solar panels including cancer risk, but only if you eat them.2

One of the troubling things is that Mrs Mann is identified as a retired science teacher. One would hope that a science teacher, even one long-retired (she isn’t3) would understand that photosynthesis happens whenever sunlight directly falls on a plant. On social media this has turned into an indictment of education in North Carolina, claiming that Mrs Mann is «the town’s science teacher», which is not true.4, even if it is troubling that any teacher would hold the belief that solar panels collect energy that doesn’t hit them directly.

But anyone who has ever been to any City Council meeting of any municipality where the public is invited to speak knows that there is always a crackpot who takes the opportunity to use the open microphone as a chance to promote some ridiculous theory. It doesn’t mean that the Town Council took either Mrs Mann or Mr Mann seriously. Even if they did, usually Town Council members have their minds made up how they will vote on the agenda topics before the meetings begin. There were other (somewhat) more reasonable objections made to the construction of the solar farm, and it’s possible the Council had reasons to reject the proposal unrelated to any of the public comments.

…Or it would be, except for the story which ought to have been the lead story. Both the Roanoke-Chowan News Herald and The Cyber Column buried the most disturbing part at the end of the article,5 that later in the meeting the Town Council also voted to enact a moratorium on all further construction of solar farms in Woodland.

This goes beyond a single decision about altering existing zoning. A moratorium on all solar farms also prevents companies from building solar farms on their own (or leased) properties which are already zoned as Industrial.

Town and city of course commonly regulate the industrial construction in their jurisdiction, but it’s a big concern that the government would place an outright ban on all of one kind of private use. Much more concerning than a decision not to waive or change existing regulations in order to accommodate that use.

Additionally, few of the more-reasonable concerns for rejecting the solar farm apply to a general moratorium. If solar farms are so ugly that they reduce property values in residential areas, that ought not apply to the land zoned as Industrial.

Perhaps—though this is not mentioned in the article about Woodland’s decision—the residents are concerned about the State and Federal subsidies that go in to the construction of solar farms and the higher rates North Carolina power utilities have to pay for green energy. These concerns were voiced in an op-ed by Herbert M Eckerlin in the Raleigh NC News & Observer. More generally, conservative groups complain about solar energy being a government boondoggle. North Carolina is not known for its liberal bent.6

All that is speculation. There isn’t any evidence (at least from the news report) that those considerations went into the decision to ban future solar farms. The idea that Woodland instituted this moratorium for those reasons are speculative. That leaves the possibility that the Town Council’s decision stemmed from cancer or environmental fears to be much more likely.

That leads to a haunting hypothesis which may seem far-fetched but which has come up repeatedly as I’ve observed partisan memes on social media. It’s a hypothesis for which I cannot provide evidence, but it’s a stratagem I might employ if I were trying to mislead a certain segment of the public.

What if this is an example of intentionally hiding a larger story inside the smaller one? Generally liberal pro-solar people are outraged about this, but for the most part it rises only to mocking scorn for the supposedly ignorant residents of a small town in North Carolina. The story will blow over in a few days and people will stop talking about it. After all, based on the headlines, this is an isolated incident affecting only one solar farm. If the lead story were that the town in North Carolina had banned all construction of solar farms, people might actually be alarmed rather than dismissive.

Another effect of this method is that the smaller story becomes a honeypot for one’s opponents’ arguments. If the story that people get upset about is easily debunked or contradicted (as done in the first several paragraphs of this post) it can be used to discredit them when they complain. Meanwhile, the bigger story, while technically having been reported, is ignored.

Perhaps this is farfetched, and even if this method is employed by people wishing to spread disinformation, it doesn’t mean that that’s what has happened here. But the pattern fits well enough here and elsewhere that it warrants a watchful eye. There have been other instances I’ve suspected of this which fall outside the scope of this post, but even if I’m wrong about the interpretation the practice of burying the lead or wrapping the real story in more outrageous claims is not an isolated case. As I already wrote, it’s something I would do if I were trying to mislead people.

For now, it doesn’t matter whether my crackpot hypothesis is true or just my own delusion. What matters is that we pay attention to what we read more critically and not just repost stories because they are outrageous. And when we do, we ought to ignore the hyped-up headlines and stick to the facts.

Especially when the facts are more outrageous than the headlines.

  1. Mrs Mann’s comments were also voiced by Bobby Mann; it is unknown based on the news report what (if any) relation the two are to one another. Mr Mann is the one who reportedly said «the solar farms would suck up all the energy from the sun». As with Mrs Mann’s comments, the quote is from the Roanoke-Chowan News Herald and not necessarily Mr Mann’s actual words. ↩︎

  2. Or if you breathe silica dust while improperly protected during the manufacture, or if you are a miner extracting that silica dust. There’s a good article compiled for the Oregon Department of Transportation outlining the safety concerns. The bibliography is a wealth of primary information. ↩︎

  3. 4 February 2013 Board of Education meeting minutes mention her retirement. ↩︎

  4. Board of Education meeting notes from 12 November 2013 list Mrs Mann as a mathematics tutor at Gaston Middle School. , and [meeting minutes from 7 November 2011] refer to her as a Middle School Math Teacher at Conway Middle School. The only reference to her teaching science is in the staff directory for Gaston Middle School but having described herself as retired and been listed by the Board of Education as a tutor it’s unclear that she ever taught science classes as part of her full-time teaching career. Neither Gaston Middle School nor Conway Middle School are actually in Woodland. Describing her as the town’s science teacher certainly is false. ↩︎

  5. Admittedly, it’s at the end of this post too. The context had to be established, but it’s true that anyone reading only the first few paragraphs would miss this. ↩︎

  6. Except for Asheville. ↩︎