Zoning Stands in the Way of Renewable Energy

Renewable energy is cheap as ever, but zoning isn’t keeping up with the market.

2 minute read

May 19, 2022, 11:00 AM PDT

By James Brasuell @CasualBrasuell


Urban Solar Power

gyn9037 / Shutterstock

An article by Thor Benson for Popular Science reports on a key obstacle standing in the way of the kind of renewable energy development now possible at scale: zoning codes.

According to Benson, the amount of renewable energy projects is nowhere near commensurate to the economics of renewable energy.

The cost of renewable energy has plummeted over the past decade. The price of solar panels has decreased by roughly 90 percent over the past decade or so and the cost of wind power decreased by over half over that same period. With prices so low, it would be affordable to implement more solar and wind power in the United States than what we currently see. 

While some states have fared better than others in rolling out renewable energy (California briefly achieved 100 percent renewable energy production earlier this month, for example), solar and wind power accounts for only 13 percent of the nation’s total energy production capacity, according to a recent report by the Americas for Bloomberg New Energy Finance. According to experts cited by Benson, the “soft costs” of permitting, zoning approvals, and construction are preventing higher levels of renewable energy production.

One 2020 study found getting a permit to install solar panels takes about 50 days on average, which is weeks longer than many other kinds of construction permits take. Wait times have slowly decreased over the past decade, but they remain a barrier.

Moreover:

Then there’s zoning laws…an area might not be zoned for installing renewable energy, which means you can’t install it unless your local government decides to allow it. A zoning ordinance might allow it to be installed but have requirements for where it’s allowed to be installed due to concerns about things like community aesthetics. It could even be entirely unclear if installing a renewable energy system is permissible at all. 

Zoning codes in many U.S. cities were written long before climate change would make apparent the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the power grid, or solar and wind energy became a possibility to located in local communities.

The source article, linked below, includes more details about how zoning laws prevent the development of renewable energy resources, and how some states and cities are revisiting zoning to respond to the need for more renewable energy capacity.

Monday, May 2, 2022 in Popular Science

Aerial view of homes on beach in Maui, Hawaii

Hawaii Passes First Legislation Regulating Short-Term Rentals Statewide

The new law will give counties the power to limit number or short-term rentals and convert existing short-term rental units back into long-term residential housing.

May 13, 2024 - USA Today

Google office building in Virginia.

Virginia Data Centers Draining State’s Water Supply

Being the world’s largest data center hub is having a severe impact on local water resources.

May 9, 2024 - Grist

Entrance to a drive-through car wash at night with green 'Enter' sign.

Ohio Towns Move to Ban New Car Washes

City officials in northeast Ohio are putting limits on how many car wash facilities can open in their towns.

May 16, 2024 - News 5 Cleveland

Grand Coulee Dam in Washington state.

Northwest Power Demand Could Surge as Data Centers, Transportation Electrification Ramps Up

New estimates project a steady increase in electricity demand due to population growth, data centers, and the shift to electric power in homes, buildings, and transportation.

May 17 - Governing

Blurred traffic speeding by on freeway with Los Angeles skyline in background.

California Testing Per-Mile Gas Tax Alternatives

A summer pilot program will test the fairness and efficacy of collection mechanisms for mileage-based fee options.

May 17 - Newsweek

Close-up of 'Pay rent' note in red marker on day 1 of monthly calendar.

After Months of Decreases, Rents Nationwide Are Going Up

Average rents rose by $12 around the country so far this year.

May 17 - Smart Cities Dive

News from HUD User

HUD's Office of Policy Development and Research

Call for Speakers

Mpact Transit + Community

New Updates on PD&R Edge

HUD's Office of Policy Development and Research

Urban Design for Planners 1: Software Tools

This six-course series explores essential urban design concepts using open source software and equips planners with the tools they need to participate fully in the urban design process.

Planning for Universal Design

Learn the tools for implementing Universal Design in planning regulations.