Green Energy Expansion Plans, Rural Communities Collide In Polk

Sierra Club supports the expansion of solar and other renewable forms of energy, but it seems the expansion plans by investor-owned utilities into rural areas have hit a snag related to rural environmental justice.

Today the Polk County Planning Commission voted to deny a plan by Tampa Electric to expand its existing solar farms in and around Chicora, a community in southwest Polk established in 1885 and still inhabited by descendants of the original settlers. Residents say they are working to get approval of the community’s designation as a historic district in hopes of gaining further protection from encroachment.

TECO and other utilities and private entrepreneurs have been active in expanding solar power in rural areas in Polk and adjacent counties for the past several years.

But this raises a sometimes overlooked aspect of the rural environmental justice debate over issues such as esthetics and quality of life rather than pollution, odor or noise complaints.

Specific issues include security fences that residents say make them think they’re surrounded by a prison camp. The fences also may hinder wildlife movement, they alleged. Others complained flashing lights interfere with their sleep. Overall, residents say they feel these facilities are being located too close to their rural homesteads without fully taking into account the effects on their daily lives.

The final decision will likely be made by the County Commission, which ruled in an earlier case in the same area that TECO was encroaching too far into Chicora and needed to scale back its plans.

Southwest Polk County, much of which was mined for phosphate beginning in the late 19th century has a long history of being chosen for controversial projects, such as power plants, that were opposed in more urban coastal areas. The arrival of the plants stressed on local water supplies. This area was also the proposed site for an ultimately rejected plan for the state’s first hazardous-waste incinerator near another rural community.

This is an issue that deserves more discussion.