Utility-scale solar energy is a rapidly growing source of our nation’s power supply and creates significant economic, community, and environmental benefits at the state and local levels across the United States.
When siting utility-scale solar parks, developers work within existing federal, state, and local regulatory processes, identifying optimal sites based on the confluence of natural resources, land use, electrical, and other opportunities. Solar parks offer many environmental and community values beyond the provision of clean, affordable electricity, such as combining agricultural practices where appropriate (e.g., grazing) and providing a long-term habitat for plants and animals. As the utility-scale solar industry matures, developers are identifying and implementing exciting innovations to enhance multiple-use attributes of solar sites.
Solar projects are best sited in sunny areas with relatively flat land and few existing water features or flood risks. When siting utility-scale solar projects, developers must consider the physical characteristics of a site and the regulatory framework for permitting a project. Physical characteristics include:
- Insolation (i.e., the amount of solar radiation energy the area receives)
- Hydrologic features (e.g., waters and wetlands, flooding)
- Geotechnical and soil features (e.g., subsurface bedrock can make construction challenging and corrosive soils can damage solar equipment)
- Biological features (wildlife and habitat)
- Cultural resources
Because solar photovoltaic systems are highly modular, sensitive features like cultural resources, wildlife and habitat, and wetlands and streams can typically be avoided by project design. When avoidance is not possible, developers work with the proper regulatory entity to minimize or mitigate potential effects. Often, the project can continue to provide habitat values during long-term project operations.
Cultural resources, if found, are handled in accordance with relevant resource protection laws through Native American tribal governments or state historic preservation offices, and they may be returned to the tribal community or preserved in a local or state museum.
Beyond physical characteristics, developers must also take into account market realities when identifying solar sites. Land price is a crucial factor, as expensive land can make solar projects economically difficult. Similarly, the existence of transmission capacity and reasonable interconnection costs are important to ensure solar projects provide energy to the electricity grid at competitive prices for ratepayers.
Solar developers work within the requirements of a variety of federal, state, and local regulations that govern construction activities, protect the environment, and ensure safe facility operations. The permitting process begins with a solar developer determining the jurisdiction over land use decisions and the applicability of various environmental laws, such as local zoning ordinances, state-level regulatory processes, and federal laws like the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), Endangered Species Act (ESA), Clean Water Act (CWA), National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) and others.
The permitting process includes the completion of site diligence, fieldwork, and technical studies to determine the suitability of a particular site for solar development and identify the federal, state, and local permits that will be required. As projects go through the relevant environmental review processes, there is often a public comment period, in which the local community is given the opportunity to provide feedback on the proposed project. Projects may be required to slightly modify site plans or designs to accommodate local community feedback. The permitting process is complete once public hearings are held and/or permits are approved and issued.
Throughout the project construction and operation process, developers and long-term owners must comply with project permits and all environmental laws, which often includes maintaining qualified biological and cultural monitors on-site during construction, ensuring that project operation meets all local, state, and federal safety requirements, and more.