A report by the Sabin Center for Climate Law at Columbia University has documented rising opposition to wind and solar projects in local communities. No surprise there: communities see the direct harms to their local environments that don’t outweigh the nebulous benefits.

The report identifies 378 renewable energy projects across 47 states that have faced significant opposition since 1995. From May to December 2023, there have been 82 new projects contested. Virginia, Michigan, New York, and Ohio each have seen more than 18 controversies. 

Communities often cite the environmental impacts from projects, such as impacts on local wildlife, ecosystems, and farmland—and they’re right to be concerned. Solar farms and wind turbines need at least 10 times the land per unit of power produced as a natural gas or coal-fired plant. That’s land that can’t be used for anything else while the project disrupts sensitive habitats and directly harms wildlife

Opposition to offshore wind has been particularly fierce. Two projects—Atlantic Shores off New Jersey’s southern shoreline, and the Vineyard Wind project off of Massachusetts—have spawned concerns for wildlife, including the North Atlantic right whales. According to NOAA Fisheries’ Sean Hayes, offshore wind poses magnified risks in southern New England waters. He adds that the risks occur during “construction and development,” and lead to “increased noise, vessel traffic, habitat modifications, water withdrawals associated with certain substations” as well as entanglement risk and “oceanographic” and “fishing effort” changes that affect right whale food supplies. 

Others feel inadequately consulted in participation processes. In Wyoming, the Albany County Conservancy claimed that the Bureau of Land Management “failed to seek public input,” in the NEPA review process for a proposed transmission line.

The report documents 395 local restrictions across 41 states. Since the 2023 edition of this report, there have been 55 more local restrictions put in place (up 73%). Local restrictions often limit system size, such as height or rotor length of turbines, or location, by limiting solar from occupying certain farmland or being too near to homes or other environmental features. Other localities set bans or moratoria. 

There are also 19 state-level restrictions that the report claims to be significantly burdensome to wind and solar power. In Minnesota, for instance, a 1982 administrative rule generally prohibits permitting any “large electric power generating plant site” where the developed portion may include more than “0.5 acres of prime farmland per megawatt of net generating capacity.”

Alaska was the only state that did not have any significant restrictions or significant opposition to any projects. Only Alaska, Utah, and Tennessee did not see significant controversies.

Any form of electricity generation has trade-offs, and those on the ground in local communities are almost always the best equipped to decide. Significant and rising pushback to wind and solar projects demonstrates that communities don’t think the benefits outweigh the costs.