Converging forces make the transition to clean energy seem inevitable, but will local barriers to siting wind and solar projects be the unexpected headwinds that block billions in new investment? The data shows that the public, including communities that host wind and solar projects, are accepting and demanding more of renewables. But fossil-aligned groups are creating discord and stalling progress.
Renewable energy is winning in terms of cost as well as consumer choice – it’s more popular with Americans than kittens, after all. And the Inflationary Reduction Act (IRA) provides the long-term policy certainty that wind and solar developers have been seeking for years.
That is good news for our climate and our economy. Achieving 50% clean energy by 2030 is required to meet US greenhouse gas reduction goals and could create millions of new jobs by the end of the decade.
Although the net energy transition seems unstoppable, the speed at which it occurs is still up in the air. And time is of the essence: If it takes too long to clean up the electricity grid and phase out fossil fuels, catastrophic climate change could be locked in.
It is essential to fully implement the IRA in order to transfer quickly enough. States and federal agencies will determine the law’s success or failure as they finalize its clean energy provisions and tap billions in new funding.
But it will be difficult to fully realize the benefits of the IRA without facing a simple reality – it takes too long to build things. And sometimes, it’s impossible. That is, unless local licensing barriers are breached.
Sort out the red tape
Renewable energy can beat fossil fuels on the bottom line, states can set ambitious clean energy goals, and consumers and corporations can claim their power comes from the wind and the sun, but very little that means if we can’t actually approve and build new projects.
More than 100 ordinances across 31 states that have blocked new wind and solar development have passed since 2021, according to the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University Law School. Just this month, communities in Ohio and Michigan effectively banned wind energy development and recalled local elected officials who supported renewable energy. However, much of this opposition may not be organic. A handful of rogue activists with fossil fuel ties have spent much of the past decade on shopping model mandates that effectively ban new wind and solar projects in potential host communities.
Clean energy advocates often point out that it could take a decade or more to build a new transmission line. Proposed transmission lines are mired in bureaucratic red tape and mired in lawsuits at the federal and state levels. In fact, over the past decade the US has added ten miles of natural gas pipelines for every mile of transmission.
Faster transmission build-out is needed to connect the best wind and solar resources to population centers, and better grid connectivity is needed to manage increasingly variable electricity resources. If policymakers fail to build new transmission, many of the IRA’s clean energy benefits could be lost.
For all its controversy, Senator Joe Manchin’s licensing reform bill attempted to address the issues fueling transmission growth, though the legislation ultimately failed to gain traction. However, that proposal and the broader debate over permitting reform missed a huge barrier to the growth of onshore solar and wind – local permitting.
More than 99% of onshore wind projects are located on private land, and of the 130 gigawatts (GW) of solar operation in the US, only 7 GW is on federal lands. This means that almost all wind and solar projects are usually approved at the state or local level, and federal remedies to streamline approvals cannot facilitate the process.
Unfortunately, an avalanche of local opposition has dogged proposed wind and solar projects in recent years, often based on misinformation or outright fallacies. Opposition groups, following a playbook organized by a fossil-funded think tank, spread lies about impacts on wildlife, property values, health, and more, stoking fear and anger.
Almost all of these false claims are refuted by credible, peer-reviewed research, but once the misinformation spreads, it’s often too late. That slowed progress, killed projects, and made renewable energy more expensive, jeopardizing our ability to quickly transition to clean energy and mitigate climate change.
Local opposition, often based on misinformation, is slowing our clean energy progress
Bipartisan majorities of the US public favor generating more of our electricity from wind and solar. And the people who already live around renewable energy projects in operation give the experience a stamp of approval.
The Lawrence Berkley National Laboratory found that 1.3 million homes in the United States are located within five miles of an operating wind turbine, and in a representative survey of that population, 92 percent of respondents reported positive or neutral experiences. Here are some things with an approval rating lower than 92 percent – apple pie, child labor laws, and baseball.
Studies of the Block Island offshore wind farm showed that support grew and opposition decreased when the project was up and running and people were used to living and working nearby.
So if the vast majority of Americans want more renewable energy, and the experience is overwhelmingly positive for those living near operating projects, where does the pushback come from? There’s no question that wind and solar projects change on a community utility scale, and people are often wary of the change. But it also appears that there is an organized, funded program to incite fear.
The Guardian, DeSmog Blog, and Media Courses and others have reported a network of individuals connected to fossil fuel-funded think tanks that tour the country giving misinformation to communities where renewable energy projects are proposed.
This artificial fear is limiting our ability to build new wind and solar projects.
About a third of Indiana is off limits to wind development due to overly onerous local ordinances or moratoria. Even in Iowa, long considered a success story where clean energy provides 62 percent of electricity, 49 to 77 percent of candidate sites are now off limits due to local restrictions. And as InsideClimate News It has been reported that local elected officials who support proposed renewable energy projects are often pressured to change their position or face challenges from opponents of the projects. These are fierce battles and often create deep divisions in previously close-knit communities.
“At the end of the day, if local governments are not setting rules that allow the infrastructure to be put in place, [clean energy] Policies can’t be achieved,” says Dr. Sarah Mills, who researches rural renewable energy at the University of Michigan. anyone fact-checking… it’s hard. They’re definitely making decisions based on the what they have to hear.”
Go around the road block
If we’re going to meet our climate goals, we just need to build lots of new wind and solar projects and get around the local permitting logjam.
The federal government can help by increasing its emphasis on offshore wind. The Biden administration is targeting 30 GW of offshore wind projects by 2030, development is well underway along the East Coast, and progress is being encouraged along the West Coast and Gulf of Mexico. Because the US Department of the Interior ultimately approves projects in federal waters, it can avoid local licensing fights and misinformation campaigns. However, the now-abandoned Cape Wind project showed that the threat is not zero, as a strange coalition of bedfellows including Sen. Ted Kennedy and the Koch brothers killed that project.
Federal licensing reform can also speed progress by making it easier to build wind and solar projects on federal lands. Only a small fraction of operational renewable energy projects are located on federal lands, even though the federal government owns 27% of the country’s total land.
State and local governments can avoid local licensing barriers by repurposing retiring fossil fuel plants as potential renewable energy sites. These sites are already accepted as energy infrastructure in their communities and benefit further from existing transmission access. State energy offices could also streamline permitting by doing the process themselves, rather than relying on a patchwork of local ordinances. This is probably the most difficult remedy, as the politics of local control are hard to avoid
Further research is also needed on the subject of local approval. Research in social science shows perceptions of fairness during renewable energy planning and permitting has an overwhelming influence on the acceptance of projects in host communities. And researchers can investigate how to combat misinformation and create reliable messengers throughout society – researchers from the University of Minnesota Duluth found that misinformation shared by opposition groups on Facebook “increases perceptions of risks human health and public safety related to wind by sharing disaster news. and misinformation about health assessment risks.”
Until we succeed in inoculating communities against this false rhetoric, the clean energy transition will continue to climb uphill, jeopardizing our climate goals. Even with all the momentum on the side, renewable energy needs to overcome some obstacles, and we can’t forget the often overlooked problem of local licensing.