Tag Archives: Utility Scale Solar Design

Community Solar Has Great Growth Potential

One solar sector that has the potential for significant growth in the 2017 -2018 time frame is “Community Solar” in select states in the U.S.  According to a recent Green Tech Media report while there are only 80MWs of community solar projects in operation there are 2.5GWs of projects in the development pipeline.  There is however a very select number of states that have the regulatory processes and utility commission approvals of viable programs where this activity will be concentrated.  Those states are:

  • Massachusetts
  • Minnesota
  • Colorado
  • New York
  • Maryland

It is also true that the promise of “Utility Scale” Community Solar(i.e. 10MW or greater) is not developing due to the requirement in most instances of a least one large corporate customer to account for 40%-50% of the output of the solar project.

Rural Electric Co-ops account for the largest number of programs online and in development, but the small customer bases limit the scale of these programs.

Navigating the specific regulations of each state, city, and program takes dedicated effort to succeed in this exciting growth segment for solar.

Solar Project Permitting Trends in California

When local cities and counties are presented with a new planning issue, such as the proliferation of new solar projects, the first thing the agency director does is asks his staff to call other cities and counties and see how they are dealing with that issue. They talk with other agency staff and they get copies of ordinances and plans. As a former staff person I didn’t care for this process as it circumvented the staffs own creativity and skills. But city council’s like to know that they aren’t walking in new territory alone so borrowing processes from other agencies is the local government method of choice when developing new ordinances.

It isn’t surprising then that we are starting to see consistent trends across California relative to how new solar projects are permitted. Some of these new permitting process can help speed up the approval process but only if the applicant understands how to best prepare their application and how to document their projects benefits and differences.

The major trends are: 1) the perceived loss of agricultural land to solar projects and the payment of fees to compensate the county for these loses; 2) The perception of solar projects being temporary uses and not permanent uses; 3) The use of reclamation plans and the payment of reclamation fees for the future decommissioning of solar sites, and; 4) the use of development agreements (DA) in permitting new sites. By managing these new processes one can often negotiate a faster environmental review process for their project.

Preparing reclamation plans takes special care and experience in both solar project development and reclamation planning as an ill-conceived plan could end up costing a lot of money and affecting the bankability of one’s project. Similarly, development agreements need an awareness of how to write conditions of approval in a way that allows project flexibility while keeping costs to a minimum. Development agreements need the engagement of an experienced solar permitting planner, a good financial modeler, and an experienced lawyer. One cautionary point about development agreements and controversial projects- DA’s are legislative actions and can be subject to initiatives, unlike use permits and other quasi-judicial actions. There are certain options to development agreements that can be discussed with local jurisdictions if you are concerned about project opponents taking ballot action against your project in the future.

Every jurisdiction is still requiring use permits and environmental review of each new project and these new permitting trends are add-ons to the existing permit approval process. The permitting process now requires looking years ahead towards the end of the project development cycle. While many landowners have some permitting experience in their local jurisdiction, these new permitting trends require the consultation of persons who understand solar technology, knows  how to permit solar for new construction, knows the costs associated with operating a solar facility, and has a clear idea of how the project can best be terminated and the site used beyond termination.

Solar Investment Professionals | Solar Farm Technology California

Land Use and Utility Scale Solar Projects

Utility-Scale Generation

Almost all of the nation’s electricity supply comes from central generation technologies, also known as “utility-scale” generation. This model generates a large amount of electricity inexpensively at a central power plant and transmits the power to users through a network of transmission cables—the grid. The difference today is that most of the existing utility scale generation is done with fossil fuels such as coal or natural gas. New to this energy mix are utility scale solar generation facilities.The land use issues associated with utility scale solar projects differ from those of traditional energy generation projects The major difference between the two types of generation facilities is that fossil fuel generation facilities require large land areas for their mining and transportation,  which makes their overall impact far more destructive than the siting of solar business plan facilities.

Some utility-scale renewable energy plants have a larger footprint than coal or natural gas plants, as seen in the graphic below. However, it is important to note that unlike fossil fuels, solar energy does not require the use of additional land for extraction, refining, and transportation of the fuel inputs. One estimate (2) finds that in total over a 30-year period, a surface coal mine will use 21,844 acres of land while an average wind array will use 4,720 acres to produce the same amount of power. But even though the land occupied by wind turbines can be used for other purposes such as farming and ranching, it still has a large and possibly fragmenting impact as generating facilities are spread across a large area.

Because of the land-use requirements and impacts of utility-scale generation, efforts to meet our energy needs and combat climate change should prioritize conservation, efficiency, and solar power generation as much as possible. If state and national greenhouse gas reduction goals are to be reached, utility-scale solar energy generation must be a part of the energy mix as well.

Nevertheless, environmental impacts associated with utility solar investment due diligence are factored into siting decisions both by state agencies- as in the case of CSP projects that use water-and with local jurisdictions during the conditional use permit process. During the permitting of solar energy projects the local jurisdiction looks at water use, the extent and timing of land/surface disturbance, and of possible habitat and endangered species impacts. By using best management practices most of these issues can be mitigated and the natural landscape maintained, or these issues can be mitigated by proper site selection. But permitting agencies need to understand that by approving utility scale solar projects there will be fewer local and regional land use impacts then if they approved a conventional energy facility. The jurisdiction needs to look at all associated regional impacts from a facility and not just the issues generated at the project site.

Future Energy Generation

New interconnection rules in California are encouraging utility scale projects less than 5 MW. And the California Public Utilities Commission will soon create a feed-in tariff pursuant to SB32. SB 32 encourages 1-3 MW size solar projects by offering developers a higher tariff rate then standard utility purchase agreements. SB32 requires that California utilities provide 750 MW SB 32 of capacity. That is 250 separate project sites.

According to IMS Research, the utility-scale market is set to surge in 2011, and is estimated to grow five times faster than the rest of the industry.

With the approval of these projects and with the demand for utility scale projects growing rapidly, solar developers will be called on to develop best management practices to mitigate any land use impacts associated with solar development. But during the course of their permitting process solar developers need to educate the local permitting staff about the true regional impacts of fossil fuel energy facilities and on the long term environmental benefits utility scale solar provides their community.

1 SolarBuzz. “Distributed Power Generation: compare solar energy with alternative energy sources.” http://www.solarbuzz.com/DistributedGeneration.htm

2  Gipe, Paul. Wind Energy Comes of Age. John Wiley and Sons: 1995. page 395