Local governments block green energy: Here’s how USA TODAY measured the limits nationwide

As wind turbines get more efficient and solar panels more affordable, wind and solar plants have grown rapidly.

Efforts to block them have grown rapidly, too, especially since 2021.

USA TODAY’s analysis found 15% of counties nationwide now have some impediment to new utility-scale wind and solar energy.

Gauging those impediments required researching a variety of local rules including outright bans, zoning restrictions, specialized land-use rules or political stonewalls. It also required setting a standard as to which restrictions are restrictive enough to count.

Here’s what we found, and how we measured it:


In some cases, counties simply ban large renewable energy projects, as part of a backlash to their growing presence. Any county with a ban was counted in our data.

An example is in Pulaski County, Indiana. A wind farm was under consideration for Jasper and Pulaski counties in 2018. The developers said the 20 to 30 turbines in the county would have produced $600,000 per year in tax revenue.

But opposed residents said the project would harm the local economy, reduce property values, affect human health, compromise military readiness, hurt wildlife and lead to the loss of “quiet nights, dark skies and the scenic nature of the region.”

In 2021 the Pulaski County board of commissioners banned all commercial wind turbines from the county, citing the need to protect and promote the “health, safety and general welfare of the residents.”

These kinds of bans proliferated. By the end of 2023, 292 counties nationwide had similar ones in place.


Counties use moratoriums to buy time to write new zoning and regulation for wind and solar farms, sometimes to craft reasonable laws and sometimes to craft bans. As of the end of 2023, 26 counties had moratoriums in place on new solar projects and 17 on wind projects.

In most cases, a county realizes it doesn’t have adequate zoning and regulation in place to properly evaluate a solar or wind project, so officials place a moratorium on any new renewable projects while its county zoning board writes one. Once the new rule is adopted, the moratorium is lifted.

That’s what happened in Linn County, Iowa. Two solar projects were approved in 2022 amid a fair amount of dissent.

“So the supervisors pressed the pause button,” said Steve Guyer with the Iowa Environmental Council.

During a year’s moratorium, the county wrote revised rules that were considered fairly reasonable by everyone. As county supervisor Louis Zumback told a local television station, “There’s really nothing in it that is a poison pill.”

In Colorado, which has some of the best wind resources in the nation, five counties put moratoriums in place in 2022 and 2023 while they updated their land use codes.

But in other cases, a moratorium is closer to a stand-in for a ban.

“They’ll carefully craft the ordinance so it doesn’t look ridiculously restrictive, but they know it will stop it,” said Ed Rivet, executive director of the Michigan Conservative Energy Forum, which supports the rights of landowners and all energy, whether renewable or fossil fuels.

Some counties have enacted what they call “indefinite moratoriums.”

In 2018 Thomas County, Georgia passed a rule saying energy facilities would not be allowed "indefinitely."  Hardin County, Iowa put an indefinite moratorium in place in 2019 and in 2023 in McPherson County, Kansas, the county commission “indefinitely extended” its moratorium on wind turbines.

Impediments: Heights and setbacks

If you’re allowed to build a wind turbine, but it has to be so short that it can’t catch the wind, you can’t run a successful power plan. If your county allows turbines – but requires they be at least a mile from anyone else’s property line, –  chances are there are almost no places turbines can really be built.

That’s the scenario in counties across the country. Green energy might technically be allowed, but building restrictions, especially focused on wind power, make it so difficult that experts and industry representatives agree there’s no practical way to build.

Height is crucial to wind power because winds are generally stronger at a higher altitude. And a taller turbine can hold longer blades, which catch more air.

So a taller wind turbine captures more wind at faster speeds, making it more powerful and efficient. In the United States today, most new turbines start at around 525 feet and go as high as 650 feet tall. (The U.S. doesn’t even have the most powerful new models. In 2023 a Danish turbine was built at almost 920 feet tall, producing 80 gigawatts of energy, enough to power about 20,000 homes.)

USA TODAY’s analysis of rules considers a height limit of 500 feet below to be a significant impediment, based on the consensus of experts including energy attorneys and university academics who study renewable energy. They agree that overall, if turbines are limited to 500 feet, they are far less likely to be economically viable.

Wind turbines that are part of the Soldier Creek Wind Farm in Goff, Kansas, seen in October 2023.
Wind turbines that are part of the Soldier Creek Wind Farm in Goff, Kansas, seen in October 2023.

In 2014, Connecticut passed a law that required setbacks of at least 2.5 times a turbine’s height, typically about 1,250 feet. No new wind projects have been built there since then.

And at some point, a height limit is so low that it’s not just an impediment, it’s really a ban. The limits range from no more than 80 feet in Inyo County, California to a trio of counties in Colorado, Iowa and Virginia that max out at 500.

Then there’s the question of “setbacks.” That means how far any one turbine must be “set back” from the edge of the next property that isn't part of the wind farm.

Model zoning ordinances in multiple states require a setback of 1.1 to 1.5 times the height of a turbine – so, about 550 to 750 feet. That way even if a turbine should fall over (an exceedingly rare occurrence) it would not touch neighbors’ property.

But some locales require more extreme setbacks. USA TODAY’s analysis considers a setback requirement greater than 1,000 feet to be a significant impediment to wind power.

The most extreme in the nation are in Nebraska.

The Cornhusker state, which ranks third or fourth in the nation for its potential wind power, has three counties with one-mile setback requirements (5,280 feet), two with two-mile setbacks, three with three-mile setbacks and one – Wheeler County – which in 2021 passed a five-mile setback requirement, the greatest distance in the country.

Even politically progressive areas have blocked green energy with these rules. In 2017, Vermont passed a setback requirement of 10 times turbine height, or about one mile, from the nearest residence. (It also enacted a sound limit of no more than 35 decibels at night.) No wind projects have been permitted in the state since then.

Impediments: Noise limits

In the 2010s a common concern about wind turbines was that the swishing noise was annoying or even dangerous to residents’ health. The health effects have been discounted and today turbines are quiet enough with reasonable setbacks that sound is not considered a major issue.

When Indiana enacted voluntary model renewable energy zoning regulations, it set a maximum allowable sound limit of 50 decibels, about the sound of a household refrigerator.

But other places set tough noise limits. Vermont’s 35-decibel limit is somewhere between the sound of a library and a quiet rural area, according to Purdue University.

USA TODAY’s analysis considers sound limits below 50 decibels to be impediments to wind power.

At some point even lower than that, sound limits also can become de facto bans.

“The decision makers may say a 30 decibel sound limit sounds like a great thing, but that’s quieter than the wind itself, so you’re effectively placing a ban on this form of energy without having to set a ban,” said Simon Mahan, executive director of the Southern Renewable Energy Association, based in Little Rock, Arkansas.

A total of 36 counties have decibel limits lower than 50, almost all enacted between 2012 and 2017.

A block to wind: Ridgeline rules

Other rules can make green energy farms impractical. One impediment for wind turbines is when they are banned on ridge tops.

Wind is stronger at the top of a ridgeline than at the bottom. In mountainous areas, if turbines can’t be built on top of the ridges, they can’t catch the wind.

In 2018, Tennessee passed a law making utility-scale wind almost impossible to build by setting a minimum setback of 3½ times a turbine’s height (at least 1,500 feet), a noise limit of 35 decibels and a 500-foot height limit.

A variety of wind turbines are seen in the distance from Palm Springs Windmill Tours in Palm Springs, Calif., Wednesday, May 11, 2022.
A variety of wind turbines are seen in the distance from Palm Springs Windmill Tours in Palm Springs, Calif., Wednesday, May 11, 2022.

Crucially, though, the law also allows no turbines over 350 feet high on mountain ridges. So in the state’s mountainous end, even if turbines could be placed in a rural spot with 1,500-foot setbacks, they couldn’t actually be built high enough to catch the wind.

This became the law in every county that did not already have a wind ordinance in place. Four counties – Gibson, Jefferson, Shelby and Washington – did have preexisting ordinances and are open to wind development.

As a result, Tennessee has only one wind farm, built in 2004.

North Carolina’s limits date back to 1983, when a development company built a ten-story condominium building on Little Sugar Mountain next to a ski resort. Deeply loathed by local residents, it spurred them to pass the Mountain Ridge Protection Act. which allowed counties to ban structures over 40 feet high on ridge lines. That meant wind turbines, as well as condo towers, became off-limits.

A later amendment set the maximum wind turbine height in those counties at 100 feet. In the end, 24 counties adopted the law, putting all wind off-limits in one-quarter of the state. The state built one wind project since then, in 2017, though one other is now in the works.

A block to solar: Agriculture rules

An increasingly common way to curtail solar projects is to set limits on the amount of agricultural land that can be used for them in a county. Farmland is a popular place to build solar because it’s generally relatively flat and open. Not surprisingly, places where crops are grown tend to have good sunlight.

USA TODAY’s analysis found that in at least 22 counties in nine states, agricultural limits have been used to create impediments to solar power.

The Yellowbud Solar farm in Pickaway and Ross counties in Ohio.
The Yellowbud Solar farm in Pickaway and Ross counties in Ohio.

Opponents argue that too much farmland being turned into solar will affect the country’s ability to feed itself at the national level and destroy the rural nature of life at the county level.

Yet the U.S. currently pays farmers nationwide to keep millions of acres out of production.

That hasn’t stopped the argument that solar should be blocked from farmland. It’s commonly used in Midwestern counties but has been most prevalent in Virginia, where 14 of the state’s 95 counties have some type of restriction on the amount or percentage of land that can be used for solar power. In October 2023, a representative from Dominion Energy, one of the state’s two largest electric utilities, said building out the 16,000 megawatts of solar production required by 2020’s Virginia Clean Economy Act will require about 160,000 acres of state land and would take up less than 1.5% of Virginia’s prime farm and forest land.

Political blocks

In some counties, local governments simply refuse to engage with would-be solar or wind developers or make it impossible to build.

In Labette County, Kansas, the County Commission has refused to sign road agreements with any industrial wind developer.

A crowded meeting Oct. 10, 2023 at the Fort Gratiot Planning Commission in Michigan, where officials were considering a 900-acre solar development.
A crowded meeting Oct. 10, 2023 at the Fort Gratiot Planning Commission in Michigan, where officials were considering a 900-acre solar development.

In Nebraska, Dawson County passed a permitting fee of $1,000 per solar panel in 2022. By way of comparison, a recent 81 megawatt solar project for Omaha would require about 160,000 panels. In Dawson County, such a project would cost $160 million in fees alone.

Sometimes counties may simply ignore state law.

In Maryland, the state Supreme Court ruled the Public Service Commission has final say on locating solar projects. Even so, a third of its counties have impediments in place.

“Counties are trying to make legal arguments for why they don’t have to abide by the state’s Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity. It tacks on legal fees and some developers are getting tired of paying,” said Stephanie Johnson, executive director of the Chesapeake Solar and Storage Association.

But some states are wide open

In spite of some locales' right-wing politics turning against green energy, other areas, including conservative ones, remain pro-renewable.

The opportunity to make money from the land – and a strong belief in private property rights – sometimes are the reasons.

  • Texas is the nation’s leader in wind-powered electricity and has been since 2005. Wind produces 23% of its electricity and solar more than 5%. There are no county-level blocks to renewables, partly because Texas has very strong rules governing the rights of private property owners and partly because of its long history of energy extraction.

  • Wyoming has strong winds and already gets 22% of its electricity from them. It  passed a law putting wind projects with 20 or more turbines under the jurisdiction of its state environmental agency’s Industrial Siting Council – meaning local jurisdictions can’t limit them.

There are also states that have begun pushing back against local restrictions, by taking that authority away from counties. Illinois and Michigan both made this move in 2023.

New York State has passed laws attempting to simplify and speed up renewable siting efforts. The latest, in 2021, established the Office of Renewable Energy Siting, which can override burdensome local laws.

Other states try to make it easier for developers by effectively telling them “Here, but not there.”

Maine was one of the first, creating a Wind Expedited Permitting Area that mapped the portions of the state considered best suited and most appropriate for wind projects. Today Maine's wind farms produce more than a quarter of the state’s electricity.

Washington state created a pilot program to head off clashes. A June report mapped out 212,000 acres deemed potentially low conflict and highly suitable for solar projects.

How we did this report

USA TODAY’s analysis began in 2022 with data from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and Columbia University’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law.  Both track laws governing solar and wind energy at the county and municipality level.

We built on that with more than a year’s worth of research tracking restrictions on wind and solar using federal data, local government filings and media reports from across the country.

We used this to create a database of rules and zoning restrictions for counties, plus some municipalities. We also indexed those by the date they began, stretching from the first we found, in 2000, through the end of 2023.

After interviews with more than 45 experts, we set standards for what kinds of rules and conditions constituted blocks to new, utility-scale (over 5 megawatts) wind and solar projects. These fell into four categories: outright bans, moratoriums, significance impediments and other conditions that made projects difficult to permit.

For each state, we created an overview of current and past state law on the placement and regulation of wind and solar power, and a list of counties that currently have blocks. We ran each state’s overview by at least two experts familiar with the state to confirm our findings. These included regional and state academics, regulators, renewable energy developers and groups supporting wind and or solar power.

The overall methodology and conclusions were vetted by a panel that included state and national experts from the industry and academia. They were:

  • Alan Anderson, chair of the energy practice at Polsinelli law firm, Kansas City.

  • Matt Eisenson, a senior fellow at the Renewable Energy Legal Defense Initiative at Columbia University’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law. He wrote their 2023 paper Opposition to Renewable Energy Facilities in the United States.

  • Tamara Ogle, a member of the land use team at Purdue University Extension, who inventoried Indiana’s renewable energy ordinances in 2022.

After a year and a half of data collection, by the end of 2023, we had identified 471 counties in the United States in which it is now difficult or impossible to build a new, utility-scale wind or solar farm. This inventory, and the date each block began, allowed us to see the increases over time.

Our conclusions are corroborated by research from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, which previously found existing local ordinances are responsible for about a 13% reduction in wind capacity and a 2% reduction in solar capacity across the nation. The NREL numbers, based on ordinances in place in 2021, likely underestimate the effect on solar because of the large number of new solar impediments USA TODAY found from 2022 and 2023.

This story was produced with support from the McGraw Center for Business Journalism at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at the City University of New York.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: How we tallied local bans, limits on renewable energy nationwide