Giving Communities a Voice on Large-Scale Solar 

When it comes to the energy transition, Sanya Carley, director of the Kleinman Center for Energy Policy at the University of Pennsylvania, knows that engaging communities is crucial for success. This week, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) funded this assertion by investing nearly ten million dollars in community-focused research specifically geared toward the siting of large-scale solar facilities. Carley’s was among four DOE funded projects, garnering $2.5 million to explore how siting practices shape support across different types of communities.

The grant money comes out of DOE’s Solar Energy Technologies Office (SETO), which is tasked with helping the U.S. achieve its goal of 100% clean electricity by 2035. To get there, the country must deploy hundreds of gigawatts of solar capacity over the next ten years.

But the siting of energy infrastructure is more difficult than it has ever been. Distrust and local opposition are two community forces that can doom projects before they start. In some situations, projects get pushed through without meaningful input from and engagement with the community—often resulting in more costs than benefits and energy infrastructure that is a burden to host.

This is where Carley, principal investigator of this project, and her research team come in. With surveys, interviews, media narrative monitoring, and field work, they will follow 24 proposed solar projects across the country and over time, gathering the perspectives of three different segments: disadvantaged communities, historic fossil fuel communities, and communities without these distinctions.

Community feedback will be gathered at all stages of development—from planning to deployment to operation—to gain insight along the entire process.

As the proposal states: “The proposed research project is rooted in this conception of energy equity and justice… and involves the study of equity dimensions through a comparative research design.”

Ultimately, the goal is to understand the costs and benefits of solar installations for a variety of communities, in order to design the most ideal siting situations that align with objectives of distributive and procedural justice.

Under what conditions are the local host communities willing to accept the projects?

Sanya Carley

“There is a great deal of research about public perceptions of solar projects in the abstract or following project completion, but far less on the actual siting process, from project conception through completion, and all community interaction points in between,” explained Carley, Presidential Distinguished Professor of Energy Policy & City Planning, in the Stuart Weitzman School of Design.

“We also need to know why some projects don’t launch. What are the factors that derail a project? What benefits and costs are communicated and discussed with the community, and at what time? Do they distrust solar, or distrust the developers? Under what conditions are the local host communities willing to accept the projects?” This information, Carley said, is essential to moving large-scale solar forward in the U.S.

Historically, the DOE has provided significant funding for engineering-oriented research projects, which makes sense for spurring the development of new energy technologies. But grants like this one, called SEEDS 4 (the Solar Energy Evolution and Diffusion Studies 4 program), demonstrate an expanding emphasis on the social sciences.

“Science and technology are key for tomorrow’s energy solutions,” said Alison Knasin, a Penn researcher who is also on the project. “But no large-scale project can get off the ground without the social mechanisms that allow it to happen.” Under Carley’s direction, Knasin manages the Energy Justice Lab at Penn (a joint partnership with Indiana University).

The third Penn researcher on the project is Parrish Bergquist, assistant professor from the Political Science Department. Also included are researchers from Indiana University, including Principal Investigator David Konisky, who co-directs the Energy Justice Lab with Carley, and Loyola University Chicago.

“All great design requires local involvement,” said Fritz Steiner, dean and Paley Professor at Weitzman. “I’m thrilled that through this grant Penn researchers can contribute to building more sustainable energy landscapes here in the United States.”

Project Participants

  • Sanya Carley, University of Pennsylvania 
  • David Konisky, Indiana University 
  • Alison Knasin, University of Pennsylvania 
  • Jennifer Silva, Indiana University 
  • Parrish Bergquist, University of Pennsylvania 
  • Shahzeen Attari, Indiana University 
  • Gilbert Michaud, Loyola University Chicago 

Grants Awarded

The organizations receiving funding under the Solar Energy Evolution and Diffusion Studies 4 (SEEDS 4) program include: 

Michigan State University (East Lansing, MI): Researchers will evaluate the potential to speed up large-scale solar siting and permitting processes while also reducing community burdens and improving procedural justice and energy equity. The project will study ten large-scale projects in four different regions of the country. (Award amount: $2.5 million)

Princeton University (Princeton, NJ): Researchers will assess the potential for Community Benefit Agreements—legal agreements between community groups and large-scale solar developers—to deliver tangible benefits to communities, build credibility in solar projects, and strengthen trust across stakeholder groups. (Award amount: $2 million)

Solar and Storage Industries Institute (Washington, D.C.): This project will leverage the stakeholder-driven Solar Uncommon Dialogue, convened by the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, Solar Energy Industries Association, and The Nature Conservancy, to identify innovative community engagement practices for siting and permitting large-scale solar projects and evaluate their impact on outcomes for host communities and the solar industry. (Award amount: $2.5 million)

University of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia, PA): Researchers will evaluate how different siting practices shape community support for large-scale solar projects and how those dynamics differ across different types of communities. (Award amount: $2.5 million)