A profound energy transition is sweeping the United States. In addition to mitigating dangerous greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change, it means new economic opportunities and a safer and healthier environment for communities across the country.
A better future is certainly within reach, or at least it is for some communities, which are the ones that will be able to capitalize on the green transition. But for many others, there is no guarantee that this clean energy transition will be a just and equitable one.
Why is this the case? As we explore in a new report and interactive map, it turns out that one of the biggest obstacles is self-inflicted: local ordinances that restrict new renewable energy development projects, including wind, solar, and battery storage.
Hundreds of counties with restrictions also have elevated rates of socioeconomic risk and energy burden. For these communities, the risk of missing out on the economic, social, and environmental benefits of the energy transition would be especially great. The existing research on local renewable energy restrictions has tended to focus on the risks they pose for achieving our national decarbonization goals but has generally overlooked the harms they impose on the communities themselves.
In a report released today, my co-author and I close this gap by analyzing how local restrictions to building renewable energy intersects with climate justice and democracy considerations. Employing an innovative new approach that builds on public datasets from sources like the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) and the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University, our research finds that local energy restrictions are preventing the clean energy transition from reaching hundreds of communities where the economic development opportunities it offers is most needed.
But our analysis also finds some reasons for optimism, as well. Notably, we took a closer look at the special case of “energy communities” (i.e., those recognized by the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) and found that a relatively small percentage of them are located in counties with renewable energy restrictions. From over 1,300 counties that contain energy communities, only 19 percent have restrictions on building clean energy infrastructure, suggesting valuable opportunities for helping promote economic redevelopment in these communities using IRA-related tax credits.
To complement the report, we are also releasing an interactive map that allows users to drill down to their counties to see what, if any, clean energy restrictions exist. Each restriction has been cited and hyperlinked, creating a unique research resource for those interested in reading the fine print of county and municipal codes (you don’t have to, though).
These findings have important implications for the achievement of a just, clean energy transition, as they suggest that many people — particularly those from structurally marginalized communities — could be denied the opportunity to participate fully in the benefits and opportunities that this transition promises to bring.
These findings also raise important questions about how to achieve a just transition consistent with principles of “energy democracy,” or the ability of people to collectively determine their energy goals and how best to achieve them.
To be clear, there are legitimate reasons to have sensible ordinances in place for renewable energy development. Under no circumstance are we advocating for a total “deregulatory approach” to energy development. But the evidence raises serious doubts about whether many of these ordinances actually reflect the preferences of affected community members. For example, in several high-profile cases, out-of-state actors with ties to the fossil fuel industry have carried out often-sneaky campaigns to push these sorts of restrictions.
We also want to be respectful of community choice when it comes to making decisions regarding their clean energy future. To help resolve this potential tension, we offer some recommendations for policymakers and clean energy advocates on addressing the following general issues: better outreach to rural communities, relying on early and effective coalition-building and public engagement; establishing legally binding Community Benefits Agreements (CBAs) that would hold commercial developers accountable for certain types of community investments and would ensure greater engagement and trust among residents; and relying on comprehensive decommissioning plans or similar agreements to offer communities and governments a chance to make long-term plans centered around land stewardship.
There’s no question that the clean energy transition is already underway, in communities all over the United States. What’s concerning from a justice perspective is whether that growth will be shared widely or restricted to particular places. Those are decisions that communities and policymakers need to begin making now.
Click to take a look at the report and interactive map.