Here’s what is holding back solar and wind developers

According to a new report, community opposition is among the chief causes of utility-scale project cancellations.

Solar panels

Photo credit: Sajjad Hussain / AFP via Getty Images

Even as demand for renewable energy soars — and is expected to rise further — developers still face major hurdles to getting projects built, a new survey from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory found. 

  • The top line: Of the utility-scale solar and wind projects that have siting applications, significant shares are being delayed or even canceled, the survey found. Chief among the reasons? Local ordinance or zoning, interconnection difficulties, and community opposition. 
  • The market grounding: Community opposition to utility-scale renewables has grown in recent years; in 2023 the number of local policies restricting wind and solar development hit a new high of 228. And the industry is feeling that increasing tension: an overwhelming majority of both wind and solar developers said community opposition is simultaneously more frequent and more expensive to confront than it was five years ago.

Demand for renewable energy, and especially for solar, is increasing. According to Wood Mackenzie, the U.S. installed the most solar ever in a single year in 2023 — and the growth is expected to continue, if more slowly, in the coming years. 

But for the people actually doing the installing, things are more fraught than demand projections would suggest. The LBNL survey, which included responses from 123 developers of utility-scale projects across 62 companies, found that of the siting applications submitted in the last five years, about half the projects were delayed significantly and roughly a third were canceled. 

Image credit: Lawrence Berkeley National Lab

Over the course of the roughly four to six years that project development tends to last, local ordinances, interconnection troubles, and local opposition are the main barriers that developers face. (The supply chain has also been a source of delays for roughly half of solar developers.)

The vocal minority

Community opposition in particular has loomed over projects. The overwhelming majority of both solar and wind developers — 83% and 87%, respectively — say opposition is a bigger problem today than it was five years ago, and larger shares of both say that companies now spend more to address and mitigate it.

Solar developers said community opposition typically adds 11 months to project timelines, and wind developers said it typically adds 14 months. Roughly four in five developers said they expect opposition to get in the way of decarbonization goals. 

Image credit: Lawrence Berkeley National Lab

This rise in opposition has come alongside the rise of coordinated groups sewing discontent and misinformation online — and the rise of local policies specifically designed to prevent renewables development.  

As explained on an episode of The Carbon Copy, two prevalent forms of opposition are coordinated disinformation campaigns spread via Facebook, and dark money directed to news websites. The LBNL survey found that most opposition is driven by a “vocal minority or outsiders.” 

“When there’s a county commission meeting debating whether or not a wind farm or a solar farm is going to be approved, people show up in the dozens,” Michael Thomas, founder and author of the Distilled newsletter, told host Stephen Lacey. There’s often “screaming matches between neighbors who stand to profit from wind leases and those who have read misinformation on social media about the dangers of wind turbines," Thomas added. 

“It ultimately leads towns to sort of turn on themselves,” he said. And this infighting — which developers say particularly plagues large projects but can be hard to predict — spells major trouble for developers who need community buy-in to get projects built. 

Image credit: Lawrence Berkeley National Lab

That said, the survey respondents generally agreed that community engagement is worthwhile, and can ultimately help reduce delays and cancellations. However, they cited both structural barriers and company bandwidth as key reasons that engagement isn’t more significant. 

As one anonymous developer told surveyors, “local or state processes are sometimes so stringent, draconian, or discretionary/risky that it incentives developers to not conduct community engagement.”

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