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Solar Energy Rejections Soared in 2022
Nearly 80 rural governments banned or restricted solar projects last year.
You won’t read about this in the New York Times or the New Yorker, but 2022 was a record year for the number of solar energy projects that were rejected by rural communities in the United States.
As I show in the Renewable Rejection Database, nearly 80 rural governments either banned or restricted solar energy projects last year. Among them: Rotterdam, New York. On December 14, according to The Daily Gazette, the Rotterdam Town Board voted 5-0 to adopt a year-long moratorium on large solar projects. The vote followed “weeks of input from residents, who urged lawmakers to adopt the measure over concerns about the long-term impact solar arrays pose for the town. Many residents expressed worries that allowing the structures without further regulations does not align with the town’s updated comprehensive plan.”
The moratorium in Rotterdam is part of the ongoing backlash in rural America against the encroachment of large wind and solar projects. These rejections are an inconvenient truth for the myriad NGOs, climate activists, academics, and corporations who are hoping that the $127 billion appropriated for renewables under the Inflation Reduction Act will catalyze a massive buildout of new solar and wind projects. But the reality is that land-use conflicts have been hindering the growth of those projects -- both in the U.S. and Europe -- for years. And as more projects get proposed, more rural communities are objecting.
For proof of that, look no further than Ohio. In early December, the Marion County Board of Commissioners approved a resolution that prohibits the construction of big renewable projects in Green Camp Township. The Marion Star reported that the move “designates all unincorporated areas of the township as a ‘restricted area prohibiting the construction of an 'economically significant wind farm,' 'a large wind farm,' or a 'large solar facility,' as defined by the Ohio Revised Code.”
In all, more than 40 Ohio townships adopted measures last year that prohibit the construction of large solar or wind projects, or both. Across the U.S., about 106 communities have rejected or restricted solar projects since 2017. The number of wind rejections also jumped last year, with 55 communities enacting ordinances or other measures that prohibit the installation of large wind facilities. Since 2015, about 360 communities across the U.S. have rejected or restricted wind projects. (Note that last year, I published numbers that were slightly higher than that. In my continuing updates to the database, I found some entries that were duplicates and deleted them.)
To be sure, lots of wind and solar projects are being approved and the amount of renewable capacity in the U.S. is growing dramatically. According to BP, solar capacity in the U.S. jumped more than more than four-fold between 2015 and 2021. In addition, installed wind capacity nearly doubled over that time span.
But the growing number of rejections doesn’t fit with the narrative being peddled by legacy media outlets. Last year, National Public Radio ran an article claiming that rural Americans were peddling “misinformation” in their efforts to prevent wind and solar projects from being built in their neighborhoods. Last month, an article published in the New York Times claimed that opposition to wind projects in Michigan included “anti-wind activists with ties to groups backed by Koch Industries.” But the reporter who wrote the article, David Gelles, didn’t provide any proof of any Koch connections. (Gelles did not reply to two emails asking him for substantiation of his claim.) Last month in the New Yorker, climate activist Bill McKibben claimed that “front groups sponsored by the fossil-fuel industry have begun sponsoring efforts to spread misinformation about wind and solar energy.” But like Gelles, McKibben didn’t provide any proof for his claim.
I have been reporting on rural opposition to the encroachment of renewables for a dozen years. I have been maintaining and updating the Renewable Rejection Database -- on my own time and my own dime -- since 2015. I have interviewed dozens of small-town policymakers and landowners. I’ve had some of them on the Power Hungry Podcast. I’ve written about people like Dave and Rose Enz, residents of Denmark, Wisconsin, who abandoned their home due to noise from wind turbines that were built too close to the house they had owned for decades.
In all of the years I’ve been reporting on these issues, I have seen no evidence of Koch funding or “front groups” sponsored by the hydrocarbon sector. What I have seen is an increasing effort by the wind and solar lobbies and their claqueurs to discredit people who stand in the way of these projects. Perhaps that’s not surprising. Tens of billions of dollars in federal tax credits are at stake. Companies like Apex Clean Energy can’t feed at the federal trough if they don’t build projects.
Instead of reporting the story about the fight over wind and solar projects honestly -- as one pitting big business against small-town America and rural landowners -- legacy media outlets are using a false narrative that implies rural residents are simply hayseeds who are being deluded by “misinformation” provided by nefarious (but unnamed) actors. Both NPR and the New York Timeswrote about wind projects being pushed by Apex in rural America, but neither outlet bothered to mention that in 2021, Apex was acquired by Ares Management Corporation, a publicly traded investment equity firm with a market capitalization of about $21 billion.
Last week, I talked to Dan Rigato, a retired school administrator who lives in Raisinville Township, Michigan. Rigato has been working with opponents of wind and solar projects in rural Michigan towns for the past year or so. He told me he has not seen evidence of “any association with the Koch brothers, or whatever their name is. It’s local landowners who are opposing these projects, local farmers, local residents, local business people. They are the ones opposing these projects...There is no big money coming to any of us, believe me. Everything we’ve done is out of our pockets, or is a small donation.”
Here’s the truth: Rural communities in Michigan, New York, Ohio, and other states are blocking wind and solar projects because they are concerned about their neighborhoods, viewsheds, and property values. They don’t want their towns to be swamped by forests of 600-foot-high wind turbines or inland oceans of solar panels. They are also right to be concerned about the deleterious health impact that noise pollution from big turbines can have on human health, a problem that was documented way back in 2009 by the Minnesota Department of Health.
Land-use conflicts are the binding constraint on the growth of renewables. The fundamental limitation isn’t money, it’s physics. Wind and solar energy have low power density. That means that attempting to use them to displace large quantities of hydrocarbons will require staggering amounts of land. For instance, last year, Jesse Jenkins and several of his colleagues at Princeton University produced a model to predict how much new wind and solar capacity could be built due to the supertanker of cash that Congress earmarked for renewables in the Inflation Reduction Act. In a Q&A published in these pages last year, Jenkins told me that the land required to accommodate the hundreds of megawatts of new wind and solar under the IRA would require a land area about the size of Tennessee. Here’s a newsflash: we don’t have any spare Tennessees lying around.
Rural Americans are fighting back against wind and solar projects because they want to retain the character of their townships, ranches, farms, and villages. And no amount of spin from the New York Times will change that fact.
Note: A slightly shorter version of this piece was published yesterday in Real Clear Energy.
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