- Trends in Energy
- Preemptive Tensions
This Week's Trend In Brief:
Getting renewable energy projects sited and approved has never been more challenging as local communities create more barriers, including out-right moratoriums on new developments, and local stakeholders get increasingly sophisticated help organizing from professionalized activists on the left and right.
In response, states with big climate ambitions are passing laws to preempt local jurisdiction over such projects.
While such laws may seem welcome news for energy developers eager to avoid delays and disruptions, the reality may not be so simple as such measures will likely face backlashes – and possibly even legal challenges – from local elected officials and a range of stakeholders losing their ability to debate projects in their communities.
As we detailed in Generating Opportunity this summer, energy developers already face pressures from local communities concerned about how large renewable projects may impact and change the nature of their hometowns, and these concerns are often driven or at least exacerbated by the professionalized activism of environmentalists on the left and climate skeptics on the right.
State preemption laws risk putting energy developers in the middle of the fray with more anger from communities that feel they lost their voice. Staying ahead of that fray means leveraging a well-honed public affairs playbook informed by the insights developers need to understand and anticipate the tensions between state climate priorities and local community preservation.
Local governments and the stakeholders involved, often backed by professionalized activists on both the left and right, have increasingly made getting green energy projects approved more and more challenging. According to energy expert Robert Bryce’s “Renewable Rejection Database,” there have been about 350 local restrictions or rejections of solar and wind projects across the U.S. since 2020. A report from Columbia Law school found that local governments restrictions supported by community members include “temporary moratoria on wind or solar energy development; outright bans on wind or solar energy development; regulations that are so restrictive that they can act as de facto bans on wind or solar energy development; and zoning amendments that are designed to block a specific proposed project.” In addition, community members are forming activist groups to delay green energy projects with measures like petitions opposing the projects and lawsuits against the green energy companies themselves. Taken together, pushback from local communities is adding years to an already long approval process. Behind these activists are frequently highly sophisticated, well-funded national activist groups, both among environmentalists and climate skeptics.
In response, at least four states have passed laws to give the state government the power to approve large-scale green energy projects in order to meet their ambitious climate initiatives: Just this past month, when Governor Gretchen Whitmer signed legislation requiring all energy produced in the state to be clean by 2040, the legislation placed authority for approving renewable energy projects with a capacity of 100 megawatts or more in the hands of the Michigan Public Service Commission instead of local governments and prohibits local communities from putting in place tighter restrictions on projects than state rules. Illinois enacted legislation earlier this year that “prevents counties from enacting preemptive local ordinances that outright ban local wind and solar projects, hindering the state’s new climate goals.” California passed a similar law in June 2022 to allow the California Energy Commission to oversee local approvals of renewable energy projects with a capacity of 50 megawatts or more. Like Michigan, the bill’s intent is assist the state’s goal of requiring all energy produced in the state to be clean by 2045. In April 2020, New York enacted the Accelerated Renewable Energy Growth and Community Benefit Act, which created the Office of Renewable Energy (ORE), which has “exclusive jurisdiction” over renewable energy projects with a capacity of at least 25 megawatts.
Energy developers may welcome state preemption as a way to avoid delays and disruption, but the reality may not be so simple – a backlash to these laws is already building. As Sara Mills, who manages the University of Michigan's partnership with the state's Office of Climate and Energy, explained, if projects are approved without community support under the state’s new law, “It would only reinforce the idea that renewables are foisted upon rural communities without consent, further stoking the urban-rural divide.” Indeed, Michigan community leaders displeased with the legislation are already planning meetings in early 2024 on what recourse they will take while legislative leaders opposed to the legislation have been openly voicing their displeasure to affected constituents. It is likely that the backlash against such measures from local elected officials and a range of stakeholders losing their ability to debate projects in their communities is just getting started.
Renewable energy developers are already facing pressures from both sides of the political spectrum, and restrictions on local communities’ ability to shape these projects only exacerbates those tensions. On the left, modern climate activists backed by national environmental and progressive organizations are able to use their networks to bring national attention to projects they deem inconsistent with their climate ideals despite the need to meet ambitious emissions standards. Meanwhile, on the right, growing skepticism in the need for renewable energy solutions to address what some view is the nonexistent problem of climate change. These factions, coupled with the community opposition to green energy projects that can change the character of agrarian communities put renewable energy companies in the middle of an increasingly contentious political feud. This new trend of, as the populist Daily Caller put it, “Blue States Are Stripping Rural Counties Of Ability To Prevent Green Energy Takeover Of Their Communities,” will only make it more challenging. That makes it even more crucial for public affairs professionals supporting energy developers to leverage a well-honed playbook to understand the political landscape they entering, and which stakeholders they can work with, and whose efforts they will have to overcome to get projects sited, approved, and built without delay or disruption.
Trends in Energy is your weekly look at key trends affecting the energy industry, brought to you by the competitive intelligence experts at Delve. As the political and regulatory landscape continues to shift, reach out to learn how our insights can help you navigate these challenges.