Inside how wind and solar energy are being restricted across the US – Des Moines Register

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The U.S. has set a goal to reach 100% clean energy by 2035, but a nationwide analysis by USA TODAY shows that achieving it is increasingly unlikely ― local governments are banning green power faster than they’re building it.

At least 15% of counties in the U.S., including several in Iowa, have effectively halted new utility-scale wind, solar, or both, USA TODAY found. These are not the solar panels you might have on your house but installations significant enough to replace power plants, each one powering tens of thousands of homes.

The limits come in the form of outright bans, moratoriums, construction impediments and other conditions that make green energy difficult to build.

The opposition to renewable energy isn’t as simple as left vs. right. There’s no one group fighting renewables. Instead, there are many, with a range of objections. But the overall result is rapidly increasing the limits on clean energy.

Sixty percent of the country’s energy comes from fossil fuels such as coal and natural gas. To get close to 100% carbon-free energy, which includes nuclear and hydroelectric power, utility-scale solar and wind electricity production must ramp up significantly.

Is renewable energy on target to replace other sources by 2035?

As of 2021, Iowa was leading the nation in the proportion of its energy derived from wind, at 60%. Meanwhile, there’s been a big increase in renewable-energy construction is underway across the country.

But the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s projection of trends shows the mix of energy sources still isn’t on track to hit those goals.

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While 15% of U.S. counties may sound like a small portion of the country, the rate of those bans and impediments is increasing quickly.

Counties blocking solar power are nearly equal to counties adding it

USA TODAY’s analysis, backed by energy and academic experts, gauges which counties have effectively blocked or impeded new utility-scale wind and solar power. The findings reveal that 2023 was the first time the number of counties curtailing new solar installations was almost equal to the number of counties adding their first solar farm.

Counties blocking wind power outnumber counties adding it

For wind energy, the blocks are even more significant. While 183 counties got their first commercial wind-power project in the past decade, nearly 375 counties blocked new wind development in the same period.

In 2009, 23 out of North Carolina’s 100 counties banned new wind projects. In 2014, Kentucky made it effectively impossible to build new turbines in all 120 of its counties and Connecticut did likewise in its eight counties. In 2017 Vermont did the same in its 14 counties. In 2018 Tennessee essentially stopped new wind projects in all but four of its 95 counties.

These statewide blocks are in addition to many individual counties in the Great Plains, the Midwest and Texas ― known as the wind belt ― which have restricted wind turbines or created rules so power companies don’t pursue certain locations. 

As of August 2023, the Iowa Environmental Council said, Iowa counties with “significant impediments” to wind energy development included Adair, Dallas, Des Moines, Hardin, Madison, Page, Palo Alto, Tama, Union and Woodbury. It said the blocks were in some cases outright and in others took the form of setback, noise limitation or other requirements that make development unfeasible.

It said four Iowa counties had similarly limiting restrictions on solar energy: Greene, Linn, Madison and Page.

For both wind and solar, the council said, there also are counties that that have imposed rules that developers might be able to comply with, but which effectively encourage them to look to sites elsewhere for their installations.

The US has great wind and solar energy potential

In areas where the wind blows faster and more consistently, wind turbines can make more electricity. In areas where the sky is consistently more sunny, solar panels can make more electricity. Scientists measure this as “energy generation capacity.”

But outright bans or other limits on wind turbines, especially in the Midwest, could block some of the highest potential for power generation in the nation. Likewise, the Southwest and Southeast have tremendous solar potential, but local restrictions sometimes block new large-scale solar plants in areas with high energy generation capacity.

Bans and impediments in these high-potential areas spread quickly in recent years 

Restrictions on wind energy often, bans seem to spread to nearby counties. Even counties that have never had wind projects (but are near counties that have) are more likely to block new projects.

Counties also restrict solar, in some cases to such a small area that it’s unfeasible to build. More than half of these bans occurred in counties that already have some operational solar capacity.

In addition to outright bans on new wind and solar, many places have significant impediments that prevent construction, including zoning restrictions, land-use rules and political stonewalling.  

There are several ways changes to zoning rules can block new energy plants. When it comes to wind, one common requirement involves the height of a turbine and its distance from adjacent property lines. 

Zoning requirements impede wind power installations

A “setback” requirement is the distance a turbine must be set back from an adjacent property that is not part of the wind project, or in some cases from an adjacent structure. Some states have created model, often voluntary, siting rules for wind and solar plants that establish reasonable setback distances as 1.1 or 1.5 times turbine height – that would be roughly 600 to 900 feet for a modern turbine. 

These rules are intended to prevent rare instances of a turbine overhanging or falling onto another property. But more extreme setback requirements can create significant impediments to wind power, often acting as a de facto ban. USA TODAY’s analysis considers a setback requirement greater than 1,000 feet to be a significant impediment to wind power.

Winds are stronger at higher altitudes and longer turbine blades catch more air. Most new turbines in the U.S. are 500 feet or taller. Some counties require larger setbacks: 1,320 feet (a quarter-mile), 1,500 feet, a mile, or in some cases as much as 3 miles. Such requirements limit the land available for turbines so much that wind farms are no longer economically feasible. 

In the abstract example below, options for utility-scale wind production decrease sharply as required setback distances increase.

In a hypothetical example prepared by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, we can see how wind power potential in Butler County, Nebraska, would look if operations were limited by structural setbacks – not just property line setbacks – of distances of 1,300 feet and 3,400 feet. A 3,400-foot setback would box out most available land possibilities for wind development.

Some counties have restrictive sound limits for wind turbines 

Another impediment involves noise limits. In the 2010s, common concerns about wind turbines included health impacts from a swishing noise made by the blades. While these fears have been discounted by research, decibel limits remain. For example, Vermont limited turbine sound levels to 45 decibels at night – somewhere between rustling leaves and a household dishwasher. 

Experts believe a relatively small amount of land is needed to meet all of America’s future power needs

Despite the recent rise in bans and impediments, the U.S. can still reach its goal of 100% carbon-free electricity by 2035. However, experts say the bans are a worrisome trend and will make achieving that goal more expensive as developers are forced to move projects to less windy and sunny areas.  

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory calculated the U.S. would require just 10,424 square miles to accommodate the necessary wind and solar farms. The lower 48 states of the U.S. comprise about 2.9 million square miles.  

Some states are leading the way with wind and solar use

While many counties seek ways to keep clean energy out of their backyards, some places in America are embracing wind and solar. Iowa, for example, gets over 65% of its electricity from wind and solar, but 11 counties there now block new wind farms. Illinois, meanwhile, prohibits counties from banning wind and solar

Wind and solar are the most economical energy solutions

Today, wind and solar are cheaper to produce than many other types of electricity. The unsubsidized cost of wind power has dropped 66% since 2009, while the cost of unsubsidized solar has fallen 84%, according to an annual analysis by Lazard, a financial advisory firm that publishes annual estimates of the total cost of producing electricity. This is the average levelized cost, which includes the cost to build, operate, fuel and maintain a power plant.

Several national think tanks and groups – many of which receive fossil fuel funding – have been putting out arguments, often false, opposing wind and solar power for years.

But sometimes, the big utility companies making money on fossil fuels are the same ones seeking to build solar farms or wind turbines.

And much of the opposition comes from local activists without obvious ties to national groups. Many are simply upset with what they see as a massive change in the places they love. USA TODAY visited communities in three states and viewed public meetings in a half dozen others to understand public sentiments for and against green energy proposals.

Click the links below to read about American farmers dealing with stringent regulations and disapproving neighbors, or learn more about common renewable energy misconceptions. You can also select your state below to see impediments to solar and wind energy in your area.

Contributing: Veronica Bravo, Josh Susong, Javier Zarracina and Shawn J. Sullivan.

This story was produced with support from the McGraw Center for Business Journalism at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at the City University of New York.

This post was originally published on 3rd party site mentioned in the title of this site

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