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.”

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

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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