Exploring Gaps in Guidance for Large-Scale Solar Development

From a cost perspective, rapid expansion of community- and utility-scale solar development is, perhaps, the most promising strategy we have for staving off the worst effects of climate change using existing technology.

For most communities, though, a new solar farm is a major commitment. They take up a lot of space, often from several dozen to several hundred acres. And they typically look quite different from surrounding land uses. Furthermore, despite growing demand for solar farms, many, if not most, communities are still waiting on their first project application.

It’s no surprise, then, that the rules for large-scale solar development can look very different from one community to the next. Or that many planners feel they need new insights and guidance to improve solar-development outcomes.

That’s the inspiration for Solar@Scale, a partnership between APA and ICMA to help planners and local officials take advantage of opportunities to site solar projects on public lands and to update plans, regulations, procedures, and programs to make context-sensitive large-scale solar development on private sites easier.

In October, the Solar@Scale team defined a preliminary set of 18 user requirements for a new practitioner’s guidebook (see table below).

We based these user requirements on our working understanding of the key knowledge areas needed by planners and local government staff and officials to improve local processes and regulations that affect community- and utility-scale solar development.

Preliminary User Requirements for a New Practitioner’s Guidebook

Public Projects Land Use Assistance Programs
Establishing policy support in local plans for solar development on general-purpose or special-purpose local-government–owned land or facilities Establishing policy support in local plans for regulatory and procedural reforms Establishing policy support in local plans for assistance programs
Establishing project goals and objectives Identifying and evaluating land-use impacts Identifying and evaluating assistance program alternatives
Identifying and evaluating potential sites Establishing effective land-use application, review, and approval procedures Establishing effective program application, review, and approval procedures
Identifying and evaluating finance and ownership alternatives Establishing effective zoning standards Establishing effective program requirements
Identifying and evaluating purchasing and contracting alternatives Establishing effective inspection procedures Monitoring and evaluating program performance
Issuing and evaluating requests for proposals/qualifications (RFPs/RFQs) Monitoring and evaluating regulatory program performance Monitoring and evaluating project performance

Next, we collected 81 online resources — primarily published by nonprofits, state and federal agencies and affiliates, and university centers or affiliates — that address at least one of the defined user requirements. Some noteworthy recent examples include guides from the Farm and Energy Initiative at Vermont Law School and the Center for Rural Affairs promoting responsible solar development on farmland and a set of updated model ordinances for four midwestern states from the Grow Solar initiative.

We then analyzed the prevalence of content related to each user requirement across our collection of resources. Through this analysis, we identified six potential gaps that may be areas of opportunity for Solar@Scale. Some of these potential gaps suggest a need to harmonize or build of off existing guidance from disparate sources. Others suggest an absence of sufficient guidance across the existing gray literature. 

1. Inconsistent or Incomplete Planning Guidance: Existing resources provide extensive guidance to local governments on planning for community- and utility-scale solar development. However, this guidance may not be sufficiently nuanced or comprehensive enough for a national audience. Much of the existing guidance is state-specific or provided as a short supplement to a more detailed conversation about planning and zoning for rooftop solar.

2. Inconsistent or Incomplete Zoning Guidance: Existing resources contain extensive guidance on zoning procedures and standards for community- and utility-scale solar development. However, there are not consistent recommendations for use permissions, site development standards, or application requirements. And there is relatively little clear guidance about the relationship of local land-use permitting processes to state energy-facility licensing or permitting processes or state-mandated environmental reviews.

3. Little Guidance for Conducting Spatial or Economic Analyses: Existing resources address several distinct spatial and economic analysis considerations for larger-scale solar development. However, there is comparatively little guidance to help local governments analyze the suitability of areas or sites for larger solar projects, the potential land-use impacts of specific solar development proposals, or the economic effects of solar development proposals on the community.

4. Little Guidance on Inspections: Existing resources provide only minimal guidance on local inspections of community- and utility-scale solar development. In many cases, the existing guidance states the importance of inspections without clarifying the participants or describing key steps in the inspection process. This is in stark contrast to the prevalence of standardized and model inspection procedures for rooftop solar systems.

5. Little Guidance on Performance Management: There is little guidance to help local governments monitor and evaluate project or program performance. In other words, there is a guidance gap between the initial permitting and end-of-life abandonment or decommissioning of community- and utility-scale systems.

6. Little Guidance on Local Financial, Educational, or Technical Assistance: There is little discussion about how local governments may be able to support community- or utility-scale solar projects through financial, educational, or technical assistance programs.

Earlier this month, our gap analysis served as a jumping-off point for the first meeting of the Solar@Scale Advisory Committee. The meeting included an initial discussion on priority topics and themes for the Solar@Scale guidebook. It also allowed us to test our initial assumptions about the needs of local government staff and officials with key public- and private-sector stakeholders.

In future discussions, we hope to explore some of the themes that emerged from our analysis and to generate new questions for investigation during this program.

You can find all the resources included in our gap analysis (and much more) in APA’s Research KnowledgeBase collection on Solar Energy.

Have a question about Solar@Scale or want to share your experiences with planning and zoning for large-scale solar development? Contact solar@planning.org.

Top image: Photo by Dennis Schroeder / NREL.


About the Author
Alexsandra Gomez is a research associate with APA.

December 21, 2020

By Alexsandra Gomez