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Deals in the Heartland: Renewable Energy Projects, Local Resistance, and How Law Can Help

By Christiana Ochoa, Kacey Cook, and Hanna Weil. Full Text.

Rural communities in every windblown and sun-drenched region of the United States are enmeshed in legal, political, and social conflicts related to the country’s rapid transition to renewable energy. Organized local opposition has foreclosed millions of acres from renewable energy development, impeding national and state-level commitments to achieving renewable energy targets in the face of the mounting climate crisis. This Article analyzes why and how communities, using county ordinances, township regulations, and electoral processes, mobilize against renewable energy companies and repel commercial wind projects. It describes the surprising and complex interplay of national, state, and municipal law governing the transition to renewable energy, and provides tangible reform proposals that can address this emerging policy crisis.

Informed by original empirical research conducted in the Midwestern United States, this Article provides a rich and textured understanding of the rapidly emerging opposition to renewable energy projects. The fieldwork at the heart of this Article provides evidence that the importance of government in contracts is currently underappreciated. This is particularly so in the context of the transition to renewable energy, where national and state governments have articulated ambitious policy objectives. Governments can add value to the deals between companies and communities, by incentivizing the deals ex ante and by stabilizing the resulting legal relationships ex post. The Article thus concludes that the trend restricting governmental presence in contracts also limits governments’ ability to achieve articulated public goals. The Article also illustrates the importance of contract formality, especially in tight-knit communities. In such local contexts, transparent, clearly articulated deals and deal-making can inspire trust, serving as the pivot point in local decisions about whether to allow renewable energy projects. Because formality opens possibilities for durable relationships in tight-knit communities it can serve as a catalyst for renewable energy projects in America’s heartland.