What We Can Learn From the 'Dumbest Town in the U.S.'

Energy from the sun in a New Mexico field
Energy from the sun in a New Mexico field

During Christmas week the Washington Post ran a fascinating story by Chris Mooney headlined "Why 2015 May Be Remembered As a Transformative Year For How We Get Our Energy."

And indeed, I think he's correct. From a "turn away from coal" to a "break out" in battery storage to the maturation of wind and solar, 2015 was truly a transformative year in energy.

And yet, some of the same old challenges remain. And strikingly so.

Just one week before Mooney's article appeared, the North Carolina community of Woodland voted to put on hold three solar farms planned for the area after a few vocal citizens raised some far-fetched concerns about what solar would do to their town. Their concerns read like a story from "The Onion" -- among them:

• Solar would soak up all the sun
• Solar causes cancer
• Solar farms are driving young people away from our town

Yes, the Council succeeded in killing the solar plants and of making a mockery of their community. Indeed, even Keith Olberman dubbed Woodland "the dumbest town in the US", while worldwide news sites, including The Huffington Post, ran mocking stories of Woodland's actions.

But sadly this isn't a joke. We've seen this type of legitimate -- and perhaps in this case, intentional -- confusion, all too often.

In fact, even though solar and wind power have matured, there are tremendous amounts of confusion and misinformation across the country about these energy sources.

We know this first hand. My organization, SmartPower, has been doing research on consumer attitudes towards solar since 2002. Back in those days the #1 concern the American people had about solar was that it "simply didn't work". They felt it wasn't strong enough to power their lives, their communities, their cities. And now, almost a decade and a half later, it appears from the story out of North Carolina that this uncertainty and confusion about solar power is still in question.

Indeed, as an organization that runs energy efficiency and renewable energy campaigns across the country, SmartPower has found significant regional differences in solar awareness and acceptance. Our partnership with Yale and Duke universities on the dispersion of solar through social networks is uncovering the fact that seeing solar on a neighbor's or friend's home is the most likely trigger to solar adoption. In short, if I have solar on my roof, I tell my friends and neighbors, and they tell their friends and neighbors and so on and so forth.

The lesson is clear. The most effective way to combat clean energy ignorance is to create solar installations in communities across the country .

Which brings us back to Woodland, NC. I disagree with Keith Obleman. Woodland is not the dumbest community in the nation. Instead, it's simply like so many of our communities (and so many of us) from coast to coast. We actually need to see solar working in our communities before we'll accept it.

To be sure, it's sad (and more than a little amusing) to hear a former science teacher in Woodland think solar is causing cancer. Or hear a farmer tell the Council that solar is sucking the sun out of the sky. But in the absence of other positive messages from other local residents what else can we expect?

We need residents to stand up and say, "Look, I'm a solar customer. I'm saving money. I'm healthy. And I'm helping my community."

Back in 2003 SmartPower created a campaign to educate consumers about clean energy with the tagline, "Its Real, Its Here. Its Working. Let's Make More." Woodland shows us the importance of "making more" solar customers.

Brian Keane is the president of SmartPower, a non-profit marketing organization funded by private foundations to help build the clean energy marketplace by helping the American public become smarter about their energy use.