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NREL's Seven Steps to Successful Large-Scale Solar Development

May 15, 2020

"Are You Solar Ready?" That's the title of an article by NREL's Megan Day, which The Magazine of the American Planning Association featured on its March 2020 cover.  The article outlines seven steps to successfully manage large-scale solar photovoltaic (PV) development.

These steps provide resources to help solar developers reach their goals, guiding large-scale solar PV development in ways that capture benefits for the community and the environment.

1. Lay the Groundwork

Communities working toward PV solutions can start by integrating solar development into their overall goals and objectives. Solar-ready communities align solar development targets with other goals such as land use, resilience, climate action, energy, and infrastructure planning.  Strategies may include:

2. Recognize Large-Scale Photovoltaics as Unique Land Use

Large-scale solar installations do not generate pollution, noise, or traffic and only need a connection with the local transmission or distribution system. For these reasons, large-scale solar installation land use is different from industrial land use and should be recognized as different when considering land use zoning requirements.

3. Identify a Development Pathway

Identify clear definitions, processes, and zoning requirements for solar development to save time and expense for planners and developers. Distinguishing between different types of solar systems (ground-mounted and roof-mounted), sizing, and their uses can help planners and developers determine permitting needs.

Example Use Table Distinguishing between Different Types and Sizes of Solar Installation

Type of Solar Energy System

Residential Districts

Industrial, Agricultural, Utilities, Rural Districts

Special, Conservation, Historic Districts

Commercial Districts

Rooftop

Allowed

Allowed

Allowed

Allowed

Ground-Mounted small (<1,750 square feet)

Allowed

Allowed

Special/conditional use permit

Allowed

Ground-mounted medium (1,750 square feet- 15 acres)

Special/conditional use permit

Allowed

Special/conditional use permit

Allowed

Ground-Mounted large (>15 acres)

Not allowed

Special/conditional use permit

Special/conditional use permit, depending on district

Special/conditional use permit

4. Focus on Impacts

Basing standards for solar installations on the impact or the area of an installation, not the capacity or how the use of the generated electricity can help codes avoid becoming outdated as technologies, efficiencies, and business models change over time.

5. Avoid Treating Photovoltaics Like a Building

Maximum lot coverage allowances limit the percentage of the lot that may be covered by buildings or impervious surfaces. These allowance limits may prevent large-scale solar because such projects tend to use an entire parcel of land. Ground mounted PV equipment are impervious, but rainwater can flow between panels and support vegetation growth under the solar arrays. Communities may consider opportunities to improve water quality, pursue agriculture, and with solar arrays. See the following NREL resources:

Overview of Opportunities for Co-Location of Solar Energy Technologies and Vegetation

Open EI: InSPIRE Resources and Publications

Beneath Solar Panels, the Seeds of Opportunity Sprout

6. Address Community Concerns

There may be community misperceptions about a PV project. Planners can debunk and learn more about the top five large-scale solar myths to educate the community.

7. Avoid Overly Burdensome Decommissioning Requirements

Ordinances for large-scale solar often require decommissioning plans. These plans are meant to mitigate abandonment risk. Facilities have significant value due to long term power purchase agreements that can limit the risk of large-scale solar abandonment.

Communities can also consider the potential value of salvaging the precious metals in solar panels. End-of-life management for solar PV panels should be considered when creating a solar-ready community. For more information, see the International Renewable Energy Agency report, End-of-Life Management: Solar Photovoltaic Panels, co-authored by NREL.

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