Solar@Scale: Improving the Local Rules for Large-Scale Solar

Solar energy is a powerful tool in the fight against climate change, and solar industry jobs have tremendous potential to play a major role in post-pandemic economic recovery efforts and in an equitable transition to a clean energy future.

Simply put, every community has access to sunlight, and the cost of photovoltaic (PV) systems has dropped dramatically since 2010.

Over the past 15 years, hundreds (if not thousands) of cities and counties across the nation have updated their plans and zoning codes — and streamlined permitting processes — to make it easier for property owners to install rooftop and small-freestanding solar energy systems. And many others have led by example and installed small PV systems on public buildings and grounds.

Despite booming demand for new utility-scale solar projects, comparatively few local jurisdictions have signaled enthusiasm for large-scale solar development or leased their own land or facilities for community- or utility-scale solar installations.

In response, APA has partnered with the International City/County Management Association (ICMA) on Solar@Scale, a new U.S. Department of Energy-funded project to help cities, counties, and special districts understand and realize the potential benefits of large-scale solar development.

In the coming months, APA and ICMA will convene a diverse set of planners and other public and private stakeholders to identify promising strategies for overcoming common local barriers to large-scale solar development in rural areas and on previously developed land, such as capped landfills and other brownfield sites.

APA will help translate these strategies into a guide to help planners and local officials take advantage of opportunities to site solar projects on public lands and to update plans, zoning regulations, development review procedures, and assistance programs to make context-sensitive large-scale solar development on private sites easier.

By the summer of 2021, the Solar@Scale team will begin sharing this guidance through a series of workshops and training opportunities.

Collectively, this work will help planners elevate their voice in local conversations about the relationship of large-scale solar development to community goals and priorities. And it will help them advocate for solar projects that promote an equitable distribution of community benefits.

Solar@Scale builds off recent articles in Planning (“Are You Solar Ready?”) and PAS Memo (“Planning for Utility-Scale Solar Energy Facilities”), as well as the Solar Outreach Partnership, a previous DOE-funded collaboration between APA and ICMA that provided extensive educational materials and opportunities to help cities and counties grow local solar markets. Through that effort, APA created Planning for Solar Energy (PAS Report 575), a Research KnowledgeBase collection on Solar Energy, and Solar Powering Sunnyside (a game-based community planning exercise).

Stay tuned to the APA website for more information. Later this year, APA researchers will share their findings from a gap analysis of the existing literature on planning for large-scale solar development.

Top image: Solar Farm Near Selmer, Tennessee. Photo by Wikimedia user Dsink000 (CC BY-SA 4.0).


About the Author
David Morley, AICP, is APA's research program and QA manager.

October 14, 2020

By David Morley, AICP