US Counties Are Blocking Renewable Energy For Themselves, But Not For Thee

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Talk about cutting off your nose to spite your face. A movement is afoot to block utility-scale renewable energy development across the US, even though the cost of wind and solar power is cheaper than electricity from other sources in many areas. Energy analysts worry that the movement is accelerating, despite the impact on ratepayer pocketbooks. However, there is more than one way for clean power to push fossil fuels out of the picture.

Cutting Off Your Renewable Energy Nose To Spite Your Face

The pushback against clean power projects has been well documented, most recently by USA Today and its research partners. They published a county-by-county analysis published on February 4, which indicated a sharp acceleration in the number of counties taking action to block utility-scale wind and solar proposals. The Des Moines Register brought renewed attention to the study this week under the title, “US counties are blocking the future of renewable energy” (see more CleanTechnica articles on the topic here).

Both USA Today and the Register underscored the disconnect between the falling cost of renewable energy and a sudden spurt of opposition to new utility-scale wind and solar projects. Citing an annual analysis by the firm Lazard, the Register emphasizes that “wind and solar are cheaper to produce than many other types of electricity,” based on the average levelized cost of energy.

“The unsubsidized cost of wind power has dropped 66% since 2009, while the cost of unsubsidized solar has fallen 84%,” they add.

There’s really no mystery to the disconnect. The Register notes that outside think tanks have also played a role in fostering opposition to wind and solar projects, though they generally credit local stakeholders with leadership roles.

Other journalists and academics have dug deeper into the network of anti-renewable lobbying organizations fueling local opposition, including a new Brown University map of shared resources between national groups and local affiliates opposed to offshore wind power. The role of anti-renewables think tanks in opposition to utility scale rural solar development is also very much in evidence.

Opposition Or Not, Here Comes The Renewable Energy Hero

The opposition to clean power is nothing new. It’s the sudden acceleration in opposition that is concerning. The USA Today analysis shows that for the first time, “local governments are banning green energy faster than they’re building it.”

To date, the analysis indicates, at least 15% of US counties are blocking utility-scale wind or solar projects, or both. Though the raw number seems relatively small, USA Today takes note of the outsized impact of counties blocking projects in the Midwest and South, where the nation’s best wind and solar resources are located.

So much for the short term. Over the long term, fossil energy stakeholders face some real problems as the cost of renewable energy continues to drop.

One problem is the fungible nature of electricity. Grid operators in renewables-friendly counties can shunt clean kilowatts to other grids, enabling ratepayers to take advantage of clean kilowatts even if they don’t host a utility scale wind or solar project. New transmission lines are taking shape to help push those markets.

Another problem is the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act, which is credited with stimulating a boom in US clean tech manufacturing jobs. By playing host to these new factories, some of the very same counties that block renewable energy are fueling the supply chains to feed the domestic wind and solar industries.

Take Tennessee, for example. In 2018 the Tennessee state legislature passed a new law that makes it all but impossible to build utility-scale wind turbines anywhere in the state, as indicated by the USA Today analysis.

Nevertheless, Tennessee’s “right-to-work” laws have helped to create an employer-friendly environment for new clean tech manufacturing ventures.

A case in point is the semiconductor firm Shoals Technologies Group. To much acclaim from Tennessee officials, in November the firm announced that it is putting up $80 million to expand its manufacturing and distribution operation in the state over the next five years.

“The additional staff and larger facility will enable Shoals to better meet its growing customer demand for solar power,” the company notes.

“Headquartered in Portland, Tennessee, Shoals Technologies Group is a leading electrical balance of systems (EBOS) provider for solar, energy storage and eMobility. The company serves its customers worldwide from several locations in the U.S.” Shoals also says of itself.

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New Technology To The Rescue

Emerging technology is another looming threat to the fossil energy industry, and that doesn’t just mean cutting costs or breaking energy conversion records for solar cells and wind turbines.

In Tennessee, for example, the state’s all-important agriculture industry is beginning to hitch a ride on the emerging agrivoltaic technology train. That’s significant because agrivoltaics can enlist a powerful political lobby on the side of renewable energy development. The ability of working farms to host utility-scale solar arrays also pulls the rug out from the argument that electricity production is not an appropriate use of farmland.

On the wind technology side, restrictive conditions are generally based on setbacks related to the height of the turbine tower. That’s a problem for the wind industry in Southeastern states, where wind resources closer to the ground are less than optimal. All else being equal, the solution would be to build taller wind turbine towers, to reach more efficient wind speeds at higher altitudes. However, Tennessee law effectively prohibits that.

Another solution would be to turn the focus on distributed renewable energy resources, meaning smaller projects that generate electricity for use on-site, or for distribution to local users.

The US Department of Energy and the Department of Agriculture have been aiming to promote distributed wind projects for several years, partly by supporting new turbine technologies. The Inflation Reduction Act has just handed them a golden opportunity in the form of new funding for small wind projects on farms. The plan is to enlist an initial cohort of 400 US farms in the program, with the potential for more in the future.

Industrial Decarbonization Is Coming For Your Fossil Fuels

One final nail in the fossil energy coffin is the industrial decarbonization movement, which is accelerating as global supply chain stakeholders seek to fulfill demands for low-carbon materials and supplies.

The leading French chemicals firm Arkema, for example, has tasked its US branch with shifting into renewable energy.

As part of its climate plan, Arkema has signed long term renewable energy agreements for its sites in Calvert City (Kentucky), Beaumont (Texas), Chatham (Virginia) and West Chester (Pennsylvania), as well as for all Bostik sites in the United States,” Arkema announced in February.

Arkema reached those deals with the well known energy providers Tennessee Valley Authority and Entergy, as well as the lesser-known but important startup 3Degrees. “This is a major milestone in the Group’s decarbonization goal to reduce its Scopes 1 and 2 greenhouse gas emissions by 48.5% by 2030 versus 2019,” Arkema noted.

For the record, the core mission of 3Degrees is to “make it possible for businesses and their customers to take urgent action on climate change.”

Arkema is not exactly a household word, but 3Degrees has advised other, more familiar renewables-seeking brands on how to ask for and receive more clean power. 3Degrees is also active in the area of reducing greenhouse gas pollution from livestock operations, so stay tuned for more on that.

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Photo: Shoals Technologies Group is expanding its semiconductor operations in Tennessee in response to the growing demand for renewable energy (courtesy of Shoals Technologies Group).


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