Utility Scale Solar Generation Facilities Conditional Use Permitting

Frequently Asked Questions

What is a Conditional Use Permit?

In California counties have essentially two kinds of uses, permitted uses and conditional uses. Permitted uses have been determined to be allowed by right and can proceed with no approval-except a business license-in the city with no other approvals required.

Conditional uses are uses determined by the county to be acceptable but are thought to have impacts that need to be mitigated. Solar farms are generally considered conditional uses and due to their size, their taking away of agricultural resources, the potential water, noise impacts and visual impacts, are thought to have to have conditions attached to mitigate these impacts. Frequently missed by many solar farm developers is the importance of these conditions, how they are written and what their costs are.

What Permits are required for new facilities?

Solar generation facilities have to comply with all federal, state and local laws. Each project will have a different set of requirements based on its location and ownership but generally projects must comply with the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA)  and with local Conditional Use Permit requirements. Projects leased on federal lands have other requirements including complying with National Environmental Quality Act (NEPA), The Endangered Species Act (ESA) and Bureau of Land Management Requirements.

What are the potential environmental impacts of the solar farm?

In the Mojave Desert, where many solar thermal or concentrated solar projects have been announced, many of these projects may have issues relative to the use of water. This area is also the home of several species of endangered plants and animals and poses a special  environmental review of the area by the power developer prior to the purchase or leasing of  land. Much of the remaining land  in the Central Valley  is privately owned and previously cultivated by farmers. However, due to the lack of access to water, the land has primarily been used for cattle grazing. Compared to grazing cattle, most solar project will have a similar impact on indigenous plants and animals.

Solar Land Partners will choose a technology that will minimize the impact on the land and will install solar panels within the natural contours of the land eliminating the need for scraping, paving or placing gravel on the site. Posts are often set directly into the ground without the need for cement. Solar Land Partners, when necessary, can develop plans to raise the panels in order to continue to allow grazing of sheep, which will help maintain the grass height as well as the current habitat on the property.

Unlike thermal or concentrated solar, flat panel PV systems do not emit light or use mirrors or water to generate electricity. There will be no air emissions from electrical generation and little or no vehicle traffic once the project construction is complete. Wind erosion of soils will be controlled to minimize dust during construction and operation. The low physical profile of the facility will minimize disruption of the vistas. The facility will generate minimal noise during operations, and will emit negligible light during nighttime hours. Cultural resource surveys have and will be conducted to analyze any potential impacts to resources. Any environmental issues will be analyzed and mitigated through collaborative work with environmental groups and government agencies.

What occurs during the environmental review process?

The County will study the project through an environmental impact review to ensure compliance with the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). CEQA requires the counties to assess the project’s effect on air quality, biology, cultural resources and traffic, among other things. A variety of local, state, and federal agencies will consider the project’s impact. Among the agencies commenting through the CEQA process are the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the California Department of Fish and Game, and the local Air Pollution Control District.

What other permits are required for the project?

In addition to the conditional use permits from the counties, the project will require county building permits and permits for access to county and state roadways. Some projects will also obtain storm water approval and water quality certifications from the California Regional Water Quality Control Board. Projects on federal land have additional requirements from various agencies and review under NEPA procedures.

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California Air Resources Board Adopts Renewable Electricity Standard Raising California’s Renewable Energy Requirement to 33 Percent by 2020


California’s renewable energy standard remains a rapidly evolving area of regulation. The RES raises California’s renewable energy mandate to 33 percent by 2020, one of the most aggressive standards in the United States. The RES represents a significant new regulatory requirement for California’s retail sellers of electricity and will have important ramifications on energy markets throughout the western states.

The RES represents a significant new regulatory requirement for California’s retail sellers of electricity

On September 23, 2010, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) unanimously adopted the “Renewable Electricity Standard” (RES) to require a 33 percent by 2020 renewable energy procurement mandate for most retail sellers of electricity in California, including but not limited to publicly owned utilities (POUs) and the state’s three largest investor-owned utilities (IOUs), Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), Southern California Edison (SCE) and San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E). The RES is an independent requirement from California’s existing Renewables Portfolio Standard (RPS), which requires a 20 percent by 2010 renewable energy procurement mandate. The RES also applies to a broader range of regulated entities than the RPS such as the Publically Owned Utilities.

The RES compliance deadlines are phased in over time:

Proposed Compliance Deadlines

Year Renewable Electricity Standard3
2012 through 2014 20 percent
2015 through 2017 24 percent
2018 through 2019 28 percent
2020 and annuallythereafter 33 percent

The RES is a major new regulatory requirement. A 33 percent by 2020 renewable mandate will require almost a tripling of available renewable electricity supplies. The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) has estimated that the “magnitude of the infrastructure that California will have to plan, permit, procure, develop and integrate in the next ten years is immense and unprecedented,” potentially requiring $115 billion in new infrastructure investment and at least seven major new transmission lines. However, the RES’s enhanced flexibility compared to the RPS — including eliminating delivery requirements for out-of-state renewable resources and allowing an unlimited use of tradable renewable energy credits — is expected to reduce costs and facilitate compliance.

RES Complements RPS But Expands Requirements to Publicly Owned Utilities

Overview of the RPS
The RPS applies to large and small investor-owned utilities, electric service providers and community choice aggregators, but does not apply to publicly owned utilities. The RPS program is collaboratively implemented by the California Energy Commission (CEC) and the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC).

A REC represents one megawatt-hour (MWh) of renewable electricity generated from a certified renewable facility.

Comparison of the RES and RPS

CARB designed the RES to maximize compatibility with the RPS. The RES relies on many of the same compliance mechanisms as the RPS. However, the RES is intended to broaden the scope of California’s renewable energy requirements and increase the flexibility of procuring electricity from out-of-state renewable resources. Distinctions between the RES and RPS include the following:

RES Eliminates Delivery Requirement. The RES eliminates “delivery” requirements under the RPS that generally mandate the delivery of renewable electricity into California.

RES Allows Unlimited Unbundled/Tradable RECs. The RES allows an unlimited use of “unbundled” or “tradable” RECs (TRECs) for compliance purposes. In contrast, the CPUC has limited the use of TRECs under the RPS, at least temporarily. TRECs allow the environmental benefits associated with renewable electricity to be sold or traded separately from the underlying electricity.

RES Offers More Flexible Certification Process. Similar to the RPS, facilities must be certified under the RES before electricity can count towards compliance obligations.

Solar Land Partner’s expect further regulatory and legislative action on the new REC standard. We will be sharing this information with our clients as issues develop.

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