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Land Use & Utility Scale Solar Development

Updated: Mar 5, 2023

Solar currently makes up three percent of U.S. electricity generation. To decarbonize the grid and meet President Biden’s goals to reduce emissions by 2030, solar energy will need to reach 40 percent or higher. The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) reports that the solar industry needs twice the land footprint of Massachusetts to achieve this goal. Even as renewable energy prices continue to drop and demand for the renewable energy offtake market grows, it is going to be increasingly difficult to site projects. This article discusses how the solar industry can successfully site projects, what measures need to be taken, and how to avoid playing defense to get projects built.

Solar projects require flat, dry conditions with infrastructure close by to transmit the energy to load centers. Though these physical requirements may limit usable physical land, there are other problems developers may encounter even when siting in prime locations. Communities are pushing back on projects due to concerns over: (1) aesthetics; (2) loss of farmland; (3) cultural issues; (4) loss of wildlife habitat; (5) health issues; and (6) property values.

Developers who take steps to address issues proactively are much more successful because they don’t have to play defense. Higher industry standards lead to greater community engagement, local government buy-in and less likelihood of a sweeping state law enacted to clamp down the industry. What are those successful strategies?

Strategically Sited and Sized Projects

Utility-scale solar projects should be sited away from thoroughfares and any sensitive locations such as churches, schools, historic sites, parks, and tourist attractions. Siting projects close to these locations will only invite community pushback and make it harder to move forward. Closed landfills or former coal sites make good locations because they have few other potential uses, they don’t detract from a community’s character, and the Inflation Reduction Act provides incentives for brownfield siting. For example, the Mount Olive Solar Farm in New Jersey is the largest solar landfill in North America.

Project size is another important component. Projects up to 25 megawatts (MW) tend to be more easily sited, as they can be slotted into tight spots that may not have another spatial use. In many cases, larger projects receive much more pushback. Large transmission upgrade projects are becoming even harder to do even in states like Texas (consider the Southern Cross Transmission project).

Meaningful Community Engagement & Philanthropy

Gone are the days of developers showing up at a community zoning meeting for their project without having ever set foot in the community. Genuine community engagement is not ‘spin’; it’s about building an open and ongoing relationship with local stakeholders. Developers need to talk with neighbors early to address concerns, provide information, and shape the project narrative. This includes early meetings with local politicians so that by the time a permit hearing takes place, a developer should already have a good understanding of any project concerns.

Philanthropy is also very important, especially if there are multiple projects in the same community. This includes everything from partnering with a local school to host a STEM event with a focus on solar, sponsorship of a local sports team, or hosting a community event. In addition, Developers should join the local chamber of commerce to stay tapped into local business dynamics. The more work that is put into building healthy relationships and trust, the stronger the foundation for project development.

An example of a successful community partnership is between First Solar and Lawrence County, Alabama. The Superintendent of Schools Jon Bret Smith called the company “a true blessing to the county” because the project’s tax revenue will allow the community to update schools and make improvements to local athletic facilities.

Going a step further, one of the best philanthropic moves a developer can make is directly offering solar energy itself – not only providing the revenue to support residents and programming, but also generating onsite energy to power the community.

Proactive Management of Environmental Risks

Utility-scale solar development involves clearing land, leading to erosion and sediment runoff if site stormwater erosion controls are inadequate. Increased sediment in waterways impacts aquatic life and drinking water supplies. Utility-scale solar developers are required under the Clean Water Act to obtain construction stormwater permits to help avoid these negative impacts.

However, a recent review of utility-scale solar practices shows that there is no uniform agreement among developers as to whether solar facilities change runoff, or if site stormwater practices are adequate to prevent environmental impacts. Recently, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency settled a lawsuit with large-scale farm owners in Alabama and Idaho regarding mismanagement of stormwater controls at their facilities.

States such as the Commonwealth of Virginia are considering regulating solar panels as an impervious surface, much like parking lots. Developers must understand nearby water channels and soils to see if runoff flow could harm the neighboring areas if a project is mismanaged.

Aesthetic, Wildlife-Friendly Fencing

The State of Ohio is regulating several aspects of utility-scale solar, such as the type of fencing used to surround projects. Although chain link fences are popular and cheaper for solar farm construction, they can pose problems for wildlife connectivity – and neighbors often find them aesthetically displeasing. More recent developments are considering implementing agricultural (ag) fencing or wildlife-permeable fencing. These barriers have holes large enough to allow wildlife to pass through, lessening the impact to important habitats. Ag fencing has been installed by developers such as Pine Gate Renewables. Developers also must ensure that vegetative buffers are maintained and living, especially because they block the viewshed from any neighboring properties.

Prime Farmland/Ag Photovoltaics

One major criticism of utility-scale solar is that it competes with prime farmland. Prime farmland is defined as “land that has the best combination of characteristics for producing food, feed, forage, fiber, and oilseed crops and that is available for these uses.” The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has a map of prime farmland across the continental United States. Numerous articles have demonstrated that solar covers an incredibly small amount of agricultural land, even if we were to install enough to meet all of our energy needs. Other forms of land conversion, such as residential home development, pose a much larger problem. What’s more, much of solar land – at least in the Carolinas – is not USDA prime land. It is often underused, underproductive acreage. Developers do not want to develop on prime farmland, as it is more expensive. They want to utilize fallow land that would never grow a great cash crop.

Nevertheless, the farmland concern looms large among solar skeptics in communities. It is especially contentious in rural areas where generational farming roots and heritage are fiercely defended.

The Commonwealth of Virginia legislature passed a law that any renewable energy project that disturbs more than 10 acres of farmland or 50 acres of forestland must have a project mitigation plan. Implementation details have not been announced yet. There are methods of utility-scale solar installation that co-locate agriculture with solar, allowing farmers to plant crops underneath panels. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) has developed a list of best practices for developers in this field.

Decommissioning and Land Reuse

Utility-scale solar panels have a useful life of about 30 years. They remain in the ground for quite some time and thus must be properly maintained. At the end of their term, sites are likely to be used again, as long as landowners want to continue leasing the property. Once these structures have been installed, transmission upgrades made and other infrastructure (such as storage) developed, panels are very cheap to repower and will actually add to property value.

Ambassadors of the Future

In the end, solar developers are ambassadors of the industry to every local community. If a project is not well run and maintained, it leaves a poor impression of renewable energy in communities that may already be wary of proposed installations. Legislative threats may continue, but these projects are much more than the steel in the ground. They provide the clean, fossil-free energy that is imperative to mitigating climate change and protecting human and environmental health. Attention to the issues raised above will ensure that projects are successful from everyone’s perspective.

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