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Communities Left Behind: How Local Ordinances Can Obstruct Energy Democracy and a Just Transition

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Public Protections Responsive Government Climate Energy Public Participation

Why we did this study

Thanks to a combination of market forces and targeted policies, a clean energy transition is sweeping across the United States, bringing communities important benefits such as economic opportunity, cheaper electricity, and a cleaner environment. But not all communities will be able to share in these benefits because they have adopted different forms of restrictions on the development of new renewable energy sources, including wind, solar, and battery storage. This report uses an innovative spatial approach to examine those communities that are at greatest risk of being left behind.

What this study found

  • Seven hundred seventy-five counties in the contiguous United States have restrictions in place targeting renewable energy, representing 25 percent of all counties. You can learn more about them in our interactive map.
  • Among these counties, roughly 32 percent are located in areas with elevated rates of socioeconomic risk, including higher unemployment and lower per capita income, than comparable regions. Furthermore, 37 percent of counties with renewable energy restrictions are characterized by high “energy burden,” which means households there spend disproportionately large amounts of their income on meeting energy costs. Because of these factors and more, these areas could strongly benefit from the exact kind of renewable energy-driven economic activity their restrictions can curtail.
  • When it comes to “energy communities” (i.e., those recognized by the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) as having a local economy largely built on fossil fuel production or use), a relatively small percentage of them are located in counties with renewable energy restrictions. We found 1,303 counties that contain energy communities, but only 19 percent of these have restrictions on building clean energy infrastructure. This suggests that there are valuable opportunities for helping promote economic redevelopment in these communities using Inflation Reduction Act-related tax credits.

What we learned from these findings

These findings have important implications for the achievement of a just, clean energy transition in the United States, 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, clean energy transition consistent with principles of “energy democracy,” or the ability of people to collectively determine their energy goals and how best to achieve them.

What we recommend

To help resolve this potential tension, our report offers 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 involvement before projects are proposed
  • Community Benefits Agreements aimed at empowering local communities
  • Responsible land stewardship, which includes thorough decommissioning plans

Read the full report
Explore the interactive map
Download the data
Read the summary blog post
Read the press release

Public Protections Responsive Government Climate Energy Public Participation