Not In Our Backyard
Rural America is fighting back against large-scale renewable energy projects.
Renewable energy is politically popular. Polling data show that about 70 percent of Americans want more wind energy and 80 percent want more solar(1). Regulators at the local, state, and federal levels have responded to this popularity by passing a myriad of goals, mandates, and subsidies to encourage the development and consumption of wind and solar energy. The Sierra Club claims that “over 170 cities, more than ten counties, and eight states across the U.S. have goals to power their communities with 100% clean, renewable energy(2).”
In addition to their political popularity, a spate of academic studies released over the past few years have claimed that the U.S. can run most or, all, of its economy solely on renewables. No oil, coal, natural gas, or nuclear required. Although renewables are popular among voters and professors at elite universities, they also have several problems, including their intermittency, need for high-voltage transmission lines, and resource intensity. Several analyses, including one done in 2019 by the Natural History Museum in London, have documented the enormous amounts of metals and rare-earth elements that will have to be mined in order to manufacture the vast amounts of solar panels and wind turbines needed for such a large effort(3).
But the most important — and the most obvious — challenge in converting to a renewables-only economy is commandeering the enormous amounts of land needed to accommodate the staggering amounts of solar and wind generation capacity that will be required to meet domestic energy needs. As longtime consulting electric engineer Lee Cordner summed it up, “Where are you going to put it? How are you going to connect it? And how are you going to pay for it?” This paper addresses those issues.
With regard to how all of those renewables will be paid for, it is clear that mandates and subsidies are driving their deployment. A key finding of this report is that between 2010 and 2029, federal tax incentives for the wind and solar sectors will total $140.3 billion.
Federal officials have introduced a spate of energy plans that could require dramatic increases in renewable energy use and untold billions more in federal spending. Among the most famous is the Green New Deal. Introduced in 2019, the plan aims to “mobilize every aspect of American society to 100% clean and renewable energy by 2030(4).” In July 2020, the Biden-Sanders Unity Task Force announced a plan that commits Democrats to eliminate “carbon pollution from power plants by 2035.” It continues, “Within five years, we will install 500 million solar panels, including eight million solar roofs and community solar energy systems, and 60,000 made-in-America wind turbines(5).”
President Joe Biden’s “Energy Efficiency and Clean Energy Standard” calls for the deployment of “millions of solar panels — including utility-scale, rooftop and community solar systems — and tens of thousands of wind turbines(6).”
In December 2020, academics at the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment at Princeton University released a study that says the U.S. can “reach net-zero emissions of greenhouse gases by 2050 using existing technology and at costs aligned with historical spending on energy.” The 300-page report includes several scenarios, all of which require huge increases in wind and solar energy, as well as a massive expansion of high-voltage transmission capacity(7). One scenario necessitates covering about 228,000 square miles with renewables. That’s an area roughly equal to the size of the state of California and Washington combined(8).
Despite the obvious difficulty in acquiring such vast swaths of land, the Princeton study got significant media attention, including a favorable piece in the New York Times, which called it “at once optimistic and sobering,” adding that the report’s conclusions seem “technically feasible and affordable(9).”
Top officials in the Biden administration are also forecasting huge increases in renewables. In March, Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said, “We have to add hundreds of gigawatts to the grid over the next four years. It’s a huge amount. And there’s so little time(10).”
Regardless of which academic, political or economic scenario is considered, it’s clear any attempt to convert the entire domestic electric grid — not to mention the entire economy — to run solely on renewables will require covering vast territories with oceans of solar panels and forests of giant wind turbines. Further, that effort will have to occur at the same time that rural politicians and landowners across the U.S. are fighting against the encroachment of large-scale renewable energy projects.
These land-use conflicts are the binding constraint on wind and solar energy expansion and they are slowing or stopping these developments all over the country. Since 2015, according to published media stories, about 300 government entities have moved to reject or restrict wind energy projects (See Figure 1).
Among the recent examples of the backlash against wind energy: On April 7, the planning board in the town of Foster, R.I., voted 5-1 to ban wind turbines. The board took action after hearing from residents of the nearby town of Portsmouth who had turbines built near their homes. According to an April 14 article by Jaquelyn Moorehead, a reporter for The Valley Breeze newspaper, the Portsmouth residents warned the board “about their experiences, complaining about constant noise disturbances, vibrations, and loss in home values from turbines in their neighborhood.”
The ban in Foster reflects the broader backlash against Big Wind. Objections to large-scale renewable energy projects include concerns about negative health effects from the noise generated by wind turbines, reductions in property values, protection of existing view sheds, and potential loss of tourism.
These conflicts, seldom covered by major media outlets, provide a stark example of the urban-rural divide. They are also a harbinger of future fights
as environmental groups, renewable energy companies, and their allies in state and federal governments continue pushing for dramatic increases in renewable energy, and slashing (or banning) the use of coal, oil, and natural gas.
Land use battles are occurring in states with some of America’s most ambitious renewable energy goals. For instance, New York has a 70 percent renewable electricity mandate by 2030, but the backlash in the state has been so widespread that Gov. Andrew Cuomo recently pushed through a measure that allows the state to override local governments when siting energy projects(11).
Connecting lots of wind and solar to the grid also requires appropriating land for transmission projects. According to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, converting the domestic electric grid to run on renewables will require roughly doubling the amount of high-voltage transmission capacity in the U.S. At present, the U.S. has about 240,000 miles of high-voltage transmission(12). Therefore, renewables conversion means adding enough high-voltage transmission lines to circle the Earth about 10 times(13).
This report provides a review of the many studies that found the noise from wind energy projects can cause health issues. It includes the summary of a 2009 study done by the Minnesota Department of Health, which documented the health complaints lodged against wind projects and recommended further analysis of the turbine-noise issue.
This analysis also marks the launch of the National Renewable Energy Rejection Database. It provides the names of towns and government entities that have rejected or restricted wind projects since 2015. The database will be regularly updated by Center of the American Experiment, and includes links to additional information, such as local newspaper articles or court judgments (americanexperiment.org/windrejectiondatabase).
Finally, this report documents the widespread resistance to the encroachment of large-scale renewable projects by landowners and local governments across rural America. It shows that the enormous amount of land required by renewable energy is already limiting the growth of wind and solar. Of course, other factors, including the incurable intermittency of renewables as well as the massive amounts of materials, including steel, concrete, copper, and rare earth elements, will limit the deployment of wind and solar. But the biggest barrier is the land-use problem. The ferocity and extent of rural land-use conflicts are showing that any attempt to convert the domestic economy to run solely on renewables is destined to fail.
Respect the home-rule rights of counties and towns that don’t want renewable energy projects in their jurisdictions.
Many local governments have been successful in fending off large-scale renewable projects by enacting measures that limit the height of the projects, as well as their proximity to non-participating land- owners, homes, and other structures. They have also enacted noise restrictions. In response, some states are attempting to override local jurisdictions that have passed measures designed to protect local landowners from the encroachment of renew- able energy projects. These local laws should be respected.
End the lavish tax incentives given to wind and solar energy: The production tax credit and investment tax credit.
Between 2010 and 2029, federal tax incentives for wind and solar will total $140.3 billion. Those subsidies are encouraging renewable energy developers to push for deployment of projects in rural areas that don’t want them. Furthermore, the incentives for wind and solar are far greater, on both an absolute and energy-equivalent basis, than those given to hydrocarbons. The tax credits also distort wholesale power markets and, when combined with renewable energy mandates, result in increased electricity prices for consumers. It is time to end these giveaways.
If reducing carbon dioxide emissions is the goal, policymakers must consider the options that are scalable, affordable, and have small footprints.
There is no viable pathway toward running our economy solely on renewables. Therefore, policymakers must be considering the energy sources that are low- or no-carbon, and are affordable and scalable. That means using more natural gas and nuclear energy.
The negative health impacts of noise from wind turbines can no longer be ignored.
Numerous health studies have found that humans are sensitive to the noise produced by wind turbines. Given those findings, regulators must assure that wind projects are located far enough from homes and businesses to prevent negative health impacts. That means adopting proper setbacks and/or requiring wind energy developers to buy out nearby landowners who are affected by turbine noise.
Download the PDF to read the full report.