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My colleagues at the Center for Progressive Reform and I recently published a report and interactive map examining how local ordinances that restrict clean energy development can impose major obstacles in our efforts toward a just clean energy transition.

These constraints take many forms, such as enforced setbacks from built structures, property lines, or roads; height limits; noise limits; and constraints in the siting process that restrict where renewable projects can be built. Critically, the more expansive these restrictions are, the less likely it is that projects can find a way to make an investment that is both technically feasible and economically viable.

Among the many important findings in our report, we highlighted the high degree of variability that exists between states in the way large-scale clean energy generation is regulated. In some cases, like Illinois and Michigan, governments have empowered state authorities to override local siting measures; other states have given local governments more decision-making powers to decide if and how renewable infrastructure can be built. Among the latter is Ohio.

Ohio represents an important case study given the sharp turn state policies (and politics) have taken since 2014. During the past 10 years, the state has been riding an anti-renewable wave of legislative and regulatory actions that have created an incredibly hostile environment to renewable development. Jeffrey Tomich, E&E News reporter for the Midwest, provides an abbreviated timeline of the relevant legislative developments:

2014 — S.B. 310 put a two-year “freeze” on Ohio’s renewable and energy efficiency standards.

2014 — The Legislature adopts new wind setbacks that have stifled new wind development.

2016 — Gov. John Kasich vetoes an extended freeze on clean energy requirements.

2019 — H.B. 6 nullifies Ohio’s clean energy standards.

2021 — Gov. Mike DeWine signs S.B. 52, giving Ohio counties extended authority over siting and the determination of exclusion zones for clean energy projects.

Given its far-reaching impacts, I want to focus on S.B. 52 to showcase the potential impact of local-level ordinances in predominantly rural areas.Effective as of October 2021, S.B. 52 allows counties to designate restricted areas where wind and solar development is prohibited and to prohibit individual projects or limit their size. However, according to Peggy Kirk Hall, associate professor and field specialist in agricultural and resource law at Ohio State University, this new authority “applies only to facilities with a single interconnection to the electrical grid and beyond a certain production size”: 5 megawatts (MW) or more for wind energy and 50 MW or more for solar energy.

Many counties across the state have used S.B. 52 specifically to restrict development in “unincorporated” areas — the parts of the county that are outside any municipality. In these areas, where there are no town or city councils, the rulemaking authority defers to the county government for decisions regarding land use rules or other projects.

This has important ramifications, particularly in rural counties. In these jurisdictions, which are incidentally the ones with the biggest clean energy potential, unincorporated areas represent much if not most of the county area. In some cases, they can represent the overwhelming majority (90 percent or more).

To get a real sense of what this looks like, we can look at three predominantly rural counties in Ohio that enacted restrictive ordinances pursuant of S.B. 52: Auglaize, Hancock, and Medina. Using publicly available data and assessing the content of the ordinances, I’ve created three simple maps that show which areas have been excluded from renewable development. In these areas, solar (> 50 MW) and wind (>5 MW) are not allowed.

As these figures show, by excluding unincorporated areas from development, Auglaize, Hancock, and Medina Counties are imposing something close to a de facto ban on large scale renewable development. Excluded areas represent almost 90 percent of the territory in the cases of Hancock and Medina Counties, to over 95 percent in the case of Auglaize County. These ordinances represent some of the clearest efforts to purposedly ban renewable development in the country.

As we’ve made it clear in our report, local regulations are not necessarily a bad thing. But a problem arises when the emergence of ordinances like these are rooted in misinformation or coordinated anti-renewable campaigns — and there is evidence that this is happening in Ohio. Ordinances like these also represent an obstacle for landowners who seek to diversify their income sources by turning to solar power as a way to reduce their vulnerability to climate impacts and volatile crop prices.

Onerous county regulations can truly hamper our efforts toward a clean energy transition. For example, a recent paper published in Nature Energy by a group of scientists from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory found that extrapolating the existing setbacks for clean energy development to their greatest extent — throughout the country — could reduce wind and solar resources by up to 87 percent and 38 percent, respectively.

As the authors point out, “additional zoning ordinance provisions and land-use regulations may also impact solar and wind siting, such as generally applicable zoning requirements and land-use standards,” but they do not capture the effects of these standards. This brief snapshot of three rural counties in Ohio provides an idea of what those impact could look like, if the right conditions are in place.

Editor’s note: Check out a related op-ed in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, co-authored with Member Scholar Joe Tomain.