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.

About Phil Millenbah

Philip Millenbah has over 30 years of experience as a permitting and environmental planner working with private clients and local governments. He has worked as a staff permitting planner for the cities of San Diego, Oakland, and several other jurisdictions in both Northern and Southern California where he managed the permitting of complex development projects. As an Energy Planner for the City of Oceanside he created the nation’s first Municipal Solar Utility (MSU) under contract to the California Energy Commission, and raised $25 million from third party investors for the city’s solar leasing program. He has written complex environmental documents (CEQA and NEPA) for a variety of clients and processed entitlements for major development projects at both the local and state level – including the California Energy Commission and the California Coastal Commission. Mr. Millenbah has experience with State of California Title 20 facility siting requirements and has expertise with FLPMA, NEPA, CEQA, ESA, CESA, NHPA, 404 and related regulatory approvals. Critical Expertise includes experience as a permitting planner with local agencies and direct experience with local, state and federal agencies in securing use permits, subdivisions, and environmental clearances. Finally, Mr. Millenbah is active in energy policy development (Feed-in tariff’s, RPS policy, etc) and has extensive working contacts at both the California Energy Commission and the CPUC. He has a Master’s Degree in Energy and Environmental Management from the University of New Mexico and a Professional Degree in Real Estate Development from the University of California, San Diego.
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