Across America, clean energy plants are being banned faster than they're being built
Across America’s power grid, there’s a growing gap between what we need and what we’ll allow.
A nationwide analysis by USA TODAY shows local governments are banning green energy faster than they’re building it.
At least 15% of counties in the U.S. have effectively halted new utility-scale wind, solar, or both, USA TODAY found. These limits come through outright bans, moratoriums, construction impediments and other conditions that make green energy difficult to build.
The impediments come as a gigantic effort to build green energy also is under way. U.S. energy from commercial wind and solar is expected to hit 19% by 2025, and those sources are expected to surpass the amount of electricity made from coal this year.
But green energy must increase radically over the next 11 years to meet U.S. goals. And those projects are becoming harder to build.
In the past decade, about 180 counties got their first commercial wind-power project. But in the same period, more than twice as many blocked wind development. And while solar power has found more broad acceptance, 2023 was the first year to see almost as many individual counties block new solar projects as the ones adding their first project.
The result: Some of the nation’s areas with the best sources of wind and solar power have now been boxed out.
Because large-scale solar and wind projects typically are built outside city limits, USA TODAY’s analysis focuses on restrictions by the county-level governments that have jurisdiction. In a few cases, such as Connecticut, Tennessee and Vermont, entire states have implemented near-statewide restrictions.
While 15% of America’s counties might sound like a small portion, the trend has significant consequences, says Jeff Danielson, a former four-term Iowa state senator now with the Clean Grid Alliance.
“It’s 15% of the most highly productive areas to develop wind and solar,” he said. “Our overall goals are going to be difficult to achieve if the answer is ‘No’ in county after county.”
The country’s green-energy deadline now sits just 11 years away. But even if politicians fail to meet that goal, another clock is ticking.
Last year, 2023, was the warmest in recorded history, warmer than any other in 125,000 years. And with the climate’s rising temperature comes rising risks: stronger hurricanes in the Atlantic, more severe cloudbursts in storms across the continent, increasing drought on the Great Plains, larger wildfires in the West.
Construction isn’t happening fast enough to meet the country’s green energy needs, said Grace Wu, a professor of energy resources at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
“I’m worried about what’s ahead,” she said.
The shift to green energy, and the rise of bans
The transition to green energy involves a profound national shift, a move from power plants that mostly burned coal, then natural gas, to new wind and solar installations. That also means shifting much of the nation’s energy generation to new regions, specifically the large wind belt down the middle of the country and the sunny southeast and southwest.
And sources such as rooftop solar panels on houses or businesses, while helpful, provide just a tiny fraction of the total power supply.
In the Northeast, several coastal states have instead made plans to rely on offshore wind turbines. But a wave of disinformation in 2023, falsely claiming offshore wind projects killed whales, resulted in a sharp decline in public support for offshore wind.
The only likely way to shift away from fossil fuels quickly is a sharp increase in solar and wind farms big enough to replace power plants, each one powering tens of thousands of homes.
The total amount of energy a solar plant can make varies widely based on size and location. The average-size solar plant today can power about 20,000 homes. A field of wind turbines can be similar, as each turbine can power about 1,000 homes.
Wind power gained momentum in the early 2000s thanks to better technology and tax incentives.
But the number of new wind projects opening annually peaked in the early 2010s, according to inventory data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration, and has slowed since then.
Wind power is expected to grow 11% by 2025 from last year’s levels. In the past 10 years, 183 counties saw their first wind project come online. However, USA TODAY’s analysis found that in the same period, nearly 375 counties have essentially blocked new wind development. That’s almost as many as the 508 counties – out of 3,144 total in the U.S. – currently home to an operational wind turbine.
Utility-scale solar plants, using solar panels that have grown dramatically more efficient, have proliferated in the last decade. The U.S. added a record 33 gigawatts of solar power in 2023 and solar is expected to grow 75% by 2025. More than 1,000 counties now host solar farms.
“A solar panel in my part of Michigan produces 70% of the solar power the same panel in Phoenix, Arizona, does. Most people would expect the difference to be much bigger,” said Sarah Mills, a professor of urban planning at the University of Michigan who studies energy policy and land use.
However, opposition also has shot up, according to USA TODAY’s analysis. Of the 116 counties implementing bans or impediments to utility-scale solar plants, half did so in 2023 alone.
This surge in obstacles is unprecedented since green-energy technology gained broad acceptance.
“The local regulation landscape for renewables is changing quickly,” said Tamara Ogle, a member of the land use team at Purdue University Extension, who inventoried Indiana’s renewable energy ordinances in 2022.
Despite growing hostility, green energy can be an economic windfall in places that welcome it.
Much as places like Texas and Alaska grew rich when drilling companies struck oil, solar and wind power can bring in both construction work and cash, in the form of leases and tax revenue from the power plants.
“You’re talking hundreds of millions of dollars of economic impact in these counties, many of which are shrinking,” said Alan Anderson, who heads the energy practice at the law firm of Polsinelli in Kansas City, Missouri. Rural counties lower their property tax bills, Anderson said, when green energy tax money flows in.
But that’s a long way from the 60 to 80% we’ll need in addition to nuclear and hydrpower.
And building any energy source is a compromise, said Thomas Daniels, a professor of land and environmental planning at the University of Pennsylvania’s Weitzman School of Design. Wind and solar do require land, just as coal, oil and natural gas did, but the acreage is larger – there’s no getting around it.
“Not every project can be no-impact,” he said. So backlash against new power plants is “a normal human reaction.”
Many forms of impediments
Local obstructions sometimes take the form of outright bans or moratoriums. But other rules also block green power: burdensome limits on size, height or locations. Some places put caps on total size, or implement complex rules that prevent solar from replacing specially designated areas such as “prime farmland.”
These limits can mean wind or solar farms are allowed in theory, but may be impossible to build in reality.
USA TODAY’s analysis considered a variety of limits to determine which ones were restrictive enough to effectively block new power projects. One example is a “setback” requirement for wind turbines. The larger the setback – a mandatory distance from a neighboring property line or structure – the larger the plot of land required for each turbine and the fewer that can be built.
“Every year we’re seeing restrictions that are more severe,” said Matt Eisenson, senior fellow at Columbia Law School’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law. “You now have counties in Nebraska that have 3-mile setbacks for wind turbines, so if you have a square plot of land, you would need 36 square miles to site a single wind turbine.”
Solar farms might be allowed, but subject to size restrictions that make them impractical. For example, in Virginia, 14 counties have set maximums on either the percentage of land or the number of acres that can be covered in solar panels, significantly restricting the size and number of possible projects.
Other jurisdictions create shadow bans of sorts. Projects might not technically be banned, but officials simply reject all green energy plans on a case-by-case basis.
USA TODAY’s analysis began with data from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and Columbia University’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law, then built on it with more than a year’s worth of tracking federal data, local government filings and media reports from across the country. The methodology and conclusions were vetted by an expert panel.
Earlier research from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory found local ordinances through 2021 were responsible for about a 13% reduction in wind capacity and a 2% reduction in solar capacity across the nation. That research likely underestimates the current effects, because of the large number of new impediments USA TODAY found from 2022 and 2023.
USA TODAY’s findings were supported by research published in late January by the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.