“Shadow flicker” from wind turbines, concerns about sparrow habitat on landfills, and worries about “toxic chemicals” from solar panels are just some of the ways municipalities are slowing down renewables installation.
A new report exhaustively chronicles the local resistance to renewable energy at play in the U.S. The report, published this week by the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University, finds at least 100 ordinances have been passed in 31 states that block or constrict construction of new renewable energy facilities. Meanwhile, least 152 proposed projects in 48 states have been opposed or contested by local groups. At a time when the U.S. needs to be stepping up renewables installation, these laws are slowing the transition.
“The report includes local laws that either placed a moratorium or outright ban on wind or solar energy development; imposed regulations that are so restrictive that they act as a de facto ban; or were designed to block a specific project,” Hillary Aidun, a lawyer with the Sabin Center who supervised the research, said over email.
There are some actions and legislations described in the report that explicitly frame renewables as a threat to fossil fuels, and indeed, some have direct backing from industry. Alduin noted that the proposed Wind Catcher project in Texas—which would have been the largest wind farm in the U.S.—was blocked by regulators in 2018 thanks in part to opposition from the Koch-funded group, Americans for Prosperity. One county commissioner in New Mexico is holding up development of a solar plant based on the “impact it could have on the region’s oil and gas industry,” while citizens in North Dakota also defeated a wind farm in 2018 using pro-coal arguments. But there’s far more sneak attacks on renewable energy that limit how projects can move forward that don’t mention fossil fuels at all.
“We found a number of laws that on their face merely regulate wind and solar energy siting—which is local governments’ prerogative—but in effect, completely bar new development because they are so restrictive,” Aidun said. “For example, some local laws discussed in our report require wind turbines to be located 2,000 feet or more from any residence. In many places, it is impossible to construct an economically viable wind farm that can meet such a stringent setback requirement.”
In describing challenges to local projects from residents, the report also paints a valuable portrait of NIMBYism by cataloging the various avenues used to push back against renewables. In addition to worries about land use and properly sited projects, there’s concern over minutiae of species and environment conservation; a solar project planned on a landfill in Amherst, Massachusetts was ultimately scrapped because it could hurt the habitat of an endangered sparrow. (Residents had made no mention of the sparrow’s fate in their first try at blocking the project, which was solely based on the use of the land in question.)
Then there’s the wild pseudoscientific claims. Another solar farm in Massachusetts was defeated in 2012 after residents raised concerns over “toxic chemicals in the panels and the output of electromagnetic frequency,” while citizens in Colorado cited “shadow flicker” as a reason not to build a proposed wind farm.
And looking a little closer at some of the local groups behind these challenges shows that while fossil fuel money may not be directly involved, right-wing funded hysteria and lies about renewable power can easily leak into, and fuel, local opposition efforts. At least two of the local groups named in the report as successfully opposing wind farms in New York and Michigan were actively sharing anti-wind propaganda around the Texas blackouts on their Facebook pages last week.
It’s not unreasonable for residents to want to protest improperly sited construction projects (per the report, one wind farm in California was defeated based on how it would interfere with a sacred prayer site of a local tribe), and it’s important to protect public health and the environment with any new development. But we need to build a whole lot of renewable projects, in a lot of different places, really soon if there’s any hope of transitioning off fossil fuels in the next decade and wavering the worst impacts of the climate crisis.
Local groups concerned about the “character” of their county or how a solar farm might change the view from their home need to ask some hard questions about how climate change may also destroy the places they know and love. And anti-renewable interests who may want to encourage this kind of opposition have an arsenal of tools at their disposal from fake health impacts, to lies about grid reliability, to overwrought concern about the “waste” generated from renewable energy.
State legislatures, almost exclusively at the behest of conservative lawmakers, have also passed increasingly draconian laws criminalizing protests against fossil fuel infrastructure. The American Legislative Exchange Council, a right-wing think tank with ties to the Koch brothers, has gained notoriety since the Dakota Access Pipeline protests by pushing the draft of a bill that would criminalize anti-pipeline protests onto state lawmakers. The effort has been a success. As of this month, 14 states have approved a version of the legislation, while four states are considering their own bills.
The Sabin Center report found no concrete evidence of a larger, coordinated ALEC-like hand at play with opposing renewables. But it’s not out of the question to think that local lawmakers may be looking at each other’s homework when figuring out ways to oppose a solar farm, or that local anti-wind groups are looking to each other for inspiration on Facebook.
Aidun pointed out that if attacks on renewables continue to intensify, people in favor of the projects will need backup to properly face some of these opponents. (The Sabin Center has partnered with a law firm to form a coalition of lawyers who provide pro bono assistance to local groups who want to support renewables projects; that organization supported the production of this report.)
“While renewable energy opponents tend to be organized, vocal, and well-resourced, there are often local residents who support wind and solar energy projects–because they are concerned about climate change or welcome the economic benefits these projects provide–but who are afraid to speak out or who lack the resources to fully participate in decision-making processes,” Aidun said.