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Restrictions on Renewable Energy Infrastructure Holding Back Local Economies, Just Clean Energy Transition in the U.S.

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Climate Justice Responsive Government Climate Energy Public Participation

A new report and interactive map help citizens and policymakers determine if already burdened communities risk missing out on the shift to clean energy and growth

Restrictive local ordinances on wind, solar, and battery storage construction could keep hundreds of U.S. counties from participating in the renewable energy transition, according to a new report and interactive map by the Center for Progressive Reform. With roughly a third of these counties already facing high energy burdens and high socioeconomic risk, such as high unemployment and low incomes, these ordinances can reinforce economic and social stressors and inequities.

At the same time, a high number of “energy communities” currently dependent on fossil fuel economies are in counties without these restrictions. This includes about a quarter of all counties containing “brownfields,” or sites with environmental contamination that are sometimes prioritized by law for restorative development.

The report, Communities Left Behind: How Local Ordinances Can Obstruct Energy Democracy and a Just Transition, offers a new look at public datasets from sources like the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) and the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University to explore whether a clean energy transition would provide economic development where it is most needed. The data analysis also includes an interactive map that allows users to drill down to their counties to see what, if any, clean energy restrictions exist.

“These numbers are striking because they reveal that many parts of the country have created serious, self-inflicted barriers to a clean, equitable energy transition,” says Federico Holm, a clean energy policy analyst with the Center. “At the same time, other places have tremendous potential to tap into the climate, environmental, health, and economic benefits of the ongoing move away from polluting fossil fuels.”

Holm adds, “Though the scale of our research was national, our mapping tool allows reporters, residents, and policymakers to go local. At a county-by-county level, people can find out what is going on where they live and to determine whether they should be working to repeal restrictive ordinances or if they can begin building community support for clean energy jobs right away.”

To support its analysis, the report employs an innovative new Risk of Missing Out — or ROMO — index, which assigns a unique score to each county in the continental United States. The index considers county-level data on employment and income, including how much money households spend on energy costs, along with restrictions on construction on the very projects that could lower those costs and boost local economies. Residents and policymakers can use the online interactive map to see their own county’s ROMO index score.

“There might be some very good reasons to have sensible ordinances in place for renewable energy development, and that’s why it’s important to understand what’s really driving these things,” says James Goodwin, a senior policy analyst with the Center. “Questions of local control and local opposition are often complicated, but we do know that out-of-state actors with ties to the fossil fuel industry are frequently behind the often-sneaky campaigns pushing these sorts of restrictions.”

Critically, though, it is possible to overcome such local opposition, whatever its actual source might be. The authors recommend a multi-step approach for upholding energy democracy in counties most in danger of being left behind during the clean energy transition:

  • Policymakers at all levels of government must engage in better outreach to rural communities to expand direct participation in democratic processes while promoting the environmental and economic benefits of investing in renewable infrastructure. Indeed, special attention should be paid to Inflation Reduction Act-designated “energy communities,” particularly the great majority of which are currently free from restrictive ordinances.
  • Communities, local governments, and developers can establish legally binding Community Benefits Agreements that would hold commercial developers accountable for certain types of community investments and would ensure greater engagement and trust among residents.
  • Other types of agreements, including but not limited to decommissioning plans, offer communities and governments a chance to make long-term plans for clean energy development and land stewardship.

“There’s no question that the clean energy transition is going to happen, and soon, in communities all over the United States,” notes Holm. “What’s concerning from a fairness 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.”

The report and interactive map are available at

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Climate Justice Responsive Government Climate Energy Public Participation