U.S. Local Community Pushback on Utility Scale Solar

The U.S. has a goal of 100 percent carbon free energy by 2035. Meeting that goal requires a substantial amount of solar and wind energy, bolstered by energy storage and distribution and transmission infrastructure. While it would be optimistic to suggest these steps will occur seamlessly, unfortunately that is far from the case. Renewable energy deployment has been hampered by local community pushback, and many communities are passing outright bans. Opposition is a battle between local defiance over land use issues. Ironically, though, many of the voters opposing projects support climate goals. 

What are the impacts of these bans? The National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL) did a study looking at the impact of local bans. Using data on ordinances in effect in 2021, NREL found the ordinances were responsible for a 13 percent reduction in wind capacity and a 2 percent reduction in solar capacity across the country. With additional bans in place in 2022 and 2023, these numbers are now much higher.

This article considers instances of opposition, offers some state examples where deployment is particularly challenging, and suggests what developers may do in the face of obstruction. Consider the following statistics: in 2023, while new utility scale solar projects found community acceptance, almost as many individual counties blocked new projects. A year-long research study by USA Today found that 15 percent of counties in the United States completely stopped utility scale wind, solar, or both. Of the 116 counties implementing bans or enacting major roadblocks for utility scale solar projects, half of those counties enacted those policies in 2023. It is doubtful that the U.S. can meet its carbon goal if this trend continues. 

State Examples of Solar Bans 

Let’s first look at two state examples of community pushback in Virginia and Ohio.

  • Virginia: Virginia passed a comprehensive clean energy law – the Virginia Clean Economy Act – with mandates that the Appalachian Electric Power and Dominion Energy have 100 percent renewable electricity by 2045 and 2050. However, counties have pushed back on the large solar projects dotting the landscape.  Currently, Lunenburg and Clarke County have outright solar bans, while the counties of Buckingham, Henry, Mecklenburg, Pittsylvania, and Surry impose various limits on the amount of land that can be used for solar. Other counties — Caroline, Charlotte, Culpeper, Halifax, Lunenburg, Nottoway, Page, Shenandoah and Southampton --have acted to discourage or otherwise restrict solar farms, such as designating the total amount of acres that can be covered with utility scale solar. This doesn’t include any actions by counties to approve only a piecemeal of a solar project. 
  • Ohio: Between April 2022 and March 2023, more than 11 counties in Ohio adopted binding resolutions to prohibit large renewable energy projects in all their unincorporated territories. There are now at least 13 counties in Ohio that have adopted such resolutions since late 2021, when a state law allowing counties to establish restricted areas went into effect (Allen, Auglaize, Butler, Crawford, Columbiana, Hancock, Knox, Logan, Marion, Medina, Ottawa, Seneca, and Union). The Ohio Power Siting Board (OPSB) is responsible for reviewing applications for solar energy projects that are over 50 MW in capacity. There are eight criteria that must be weighed when examining a project.

What can be learned from these two state examples? Virginia’s community challenges have fallen into two categories: (1) competing demands between solar and agriculture; and (2) a patchwork of ordinances at the local level for project development. The state of Ohio has counties which have banned solar even without a local project proposed or on the books because a new law—Senate Bill 52—gives counties the option to review and block individual projects prior to review by the state Ohio Power Siting Board (OPSB). Senate Bill 52 also empowered counties to pass restriction zones over all or part of the county preemptively rejecting all new solar projects. In 2023, more counties passed these blanket bans because they had the authority to do so. 

Will Community Bans Continue?

One growing problem has been dissemination of false information about utility scale solar projects. Columbia University finished a study last year of clean energy pushback and found that misinformation is considerably widespread. For example, renewable opponents have claimed publicly that solar takes up so much space that there is not enough land remaining to grow food. Organized opposition uses political campaigns and direct political protest. Ironically, though, local opposition is often driven by residents whose concerns do not translate into outright disapproval of renewable energy.

There is one factor currently indicating that community bans may wane. States are beginning to understand that utility scale solar bans make it that much harder to meet state climate goals. So, even while more localities have passed restrictions in the past year, states are passing laws giving them the authority to override local government decisions.  For example, in January 2023, Illinois Governor JB Pritzker signed legislation blocking outright wind and solar bans by local governments. In Michigan, the state’s Clean Energy Future legislation, signed by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in November 2023, includes a provision that moves final authority for the permitting of large-scale renewable energy projects over to the Michigan Public Service Commission. Before that, such decisions were decided at the local township level. Even in Virginia, bills this session propose giving state regulators the authority to override a local government’s solar project denial. 

Getting Solar Permits in the Face of Pushback

What are developers’ options moving forward?

  • Consider Communities in States with a Statewide Clean Energy Mandate: The levelized cost of energy (LCOE) shows that solar energy has become the cheapest source of newly built electricity generation across the country (LCOE for solar is more than 20 percent lower than the cheapest fossil fuel alternative). Economically, utility scale solar as a generation source will be the cheapest generation source regardless of where it is located. However, states with a clean energy mandate will have more impetus to intervene if they believe local government bans will thwart statewide clean energy goals.
  • Going to Communities With a Clear Local Ordinance: Many local governments have not updated their local policies and ordinances to incorporate solar. Developers are better served by going to counties that have made such updates as this provides much more certainty. A case in point: Virginia’s Louisa County just finished a very clear permitting process and updated their solar ordinance to include a maximum acreage for projects. At the very least, this new ordinance gives people information on what will impact them, even if the conclusions are arbitrary.
  • Brownfields: Developers should consider siting solar facilities on brownfields because they already have infrastructure in place to connect with the electric grid, and because their potential contamination may make them less attractive for other uses. Furthermore, these projects do not generate the same level of community pushback as greenfield development.
  • Distributed Solar: One alternative to large installations on rural lands is the use of distributed solar in densely populated areas. Placing solar installations close to energy load and transmission infrastructure offers potential energy cost savings for residents in addition to alleviating pressure in rural areas.
  • Early Engagement & Community Benefit Agreements: Many community members have concerns about renewable energy infrastructure being built near their homes. Because of this, developers need to build relationships and engage with the community early and regularly throughout the project process. Developers can also pursue community benefits agreements—contracts between developers and community groups—where community groups commit to project support in exchange for specific benefits that the developer provides the community. The benefits can be additional environmental remediation projects, workforce development, or even local hiring requirements.

Community pushback is not new, nor will it go away. But states are starting to intervene if they believe local community pushback against clean energy will delay climate goals. Projects need to be sited within a regulatory framework that encourages clean energy deployment. But balancing different interests remains challenging. Leyline will continue to track progress on this ever-evolving issue.

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