Utility-scale solar has been steadily growing over the last couple of years, with 10.4 GW installed in 2016 alone, more than twice 2015’s 4.3 GW. 2016 was also the first time solar accounted for the highest percentage of new energy capacity build in the United States at 39%. Utility-scale solar development is no longer a phenomenon only suitable for the Southwest desert; it’s starting to happen in closer proximity to densely populated areas or rural communities on the East Coast, too.

As solar deployment continues, several states and counties have decided to revisit their previous zoning laws to accommodate this new growth.  In some cases, local communities want to pause development while they sort out antiquated zoning practices that did not account for solar deployment, or devise ways in which the local community can have more say in the permitting process. In other cases, these conversations are the result of plain ol’ NIMBYism, or the misconception that solar on agricultural land will lead to “too much electricity and not enough food.”

As a result, we have seen several legislative attempts geared at ground mount solar development. Here are a few examples.

Maryland

Maryland’s utility-scale (>2MW) solar build has stayed relatively steady year-over-year with 16MW installed last year, as compared to 168MW residential and 64MW commercial. After a highly publicized debate on the Eastern Shore, which has seen most of the state’s utility-scale solar growth, went sour, counties began to request more say in the permitting of local solar projects, which is handled at the state level through the Certificate of Public Convenience & Necessity (CPCN) process. The result was a pair of bills at the state legislature. Though one failed, another, HB 1350 requires the Maryland Public Service Commission to share CPCN application materials with the local jurisdiction, and to consider the jurisdiction’s comprehensive plan and zoning. This legislation was not specifically targeted at solar – all generating stations are included.

While the legislative session made progress on this issue, a handful of counties have issued – or contemplated – a moratorium on ground mount solar projects. While some county-level legislation has been withdrawn, state legislators are attempting to provide local jurisdictions with more authority over the state-wide permitting process.  For example, in January of 2016, Frederick County imposed a 6-month ban on solar facility applications, which was extended to December 2016. Uncertainty has persisted as the County Council worked through legislation, putting in jeopardy the good faith investments already made by solar developers prior to the ban. Caroline County implemented a similar 6-month moratorium.

Connecticut

In Connecticut’s current legislation session, which runs until June 7th, there are two bills on the table that center on limiting solar development on agricultural land. SB412 would restrict the use of incentives for large-scale solar arrays looking to locate on agricultural land. HB5344 seeks to allow local communities more of a role in the project development process.

Vermont

Despite its reputation for the love of all things green – and its 75% RPS – Vermont has some of the toughest renewable energy permitting laws in the country which have hindered solar deployment.  S260 – the Energy Development Improvement Act – took effect in July of 2016. S260, adds to the existing siting processes an analysis of energy sectors including conservation, energy efficiency, development, and siting of renewable energy. There can be no building of renewable energy on sensitive areas, including agricultural soils.

New York

Nearly 90 town and village governments in New York enacted moratoriums on large commercial solar farm development in 2016. Many of these moratoriums center around a town’s desire to have a period to reconfigure zoning/land use, standards, taxes, etc. for these systems.

This limit on ground mount development is happening despite little utility-scale development in the state. While New York ranks 10th amongst top solar states, only a fraction has been utility scale until recently. As of January 2017, only around 85MW of utility scale solar have been constructed in New York and the market really only started in 2011 according to GTM. This is compared to 533MW of residential and 309MW in the commercial sector.

In fact, 2016 was the first time that a solar project was awarded a bid for a 20-year REC contract under New York’s Large Scale Renewables Procurement, which will now be under the Clean Energy Standard. These procurements are technology neutral, and utility-scale solar had previously not won bids against other technologies such as wind, hydroelectric, and fuel cell until this year.

Like Maryland, the actual megawatts installed of utility-scale solar in New York is overstated.

North Carolina

Further south down the East Coast in North Carolina, the 2nd ranked solar state, with 3,016MW installed, there has also been land use discussions. At the state level, there have been bills aimed at creating more restrictive permitting rules. While these have not seen success, similarly to previously mentioned scenarios, local level opposition has seen more success through moratoriums, with the most recent being in Currituck County.

Despite this pushback, analysis by the North Carolina Sustainable Energy Association showed that solar was not eating up available farmland in the state. Rather, the projects that did exist were extremely visible near the highways, creating this misperception.  They found that the amount of land actually used for solar was relatively small, and solar actually took up only 0.2% of previously used cropland, while producing enough electricity to supply 6.2% of North Carolina’s households and supplying over 7,100 jobs in the state.

Solar and Local Communities: Let’s Work Together

Overall, the solar industry has experienced some growing pains related to land use, and not just on the East Coast (we were recently at the Oregon SEIA conference, where the solar and land use debate is also lively).

As our electricity sector transforms, the solar industry will be most successful when we help local communities become more comfortable with our technology, dispel myths, and foster relationships to seek mutual understanding.

Furthermore, we need to promote the positives. Solar development increases local property tax revenues. Rather than negotiating for no local taxes, we recommend developers ensure more limited tax revenue to help build out key stakeholder support. On a dollar-per-acre basis, utility-scale solar generates more tax revenue than if that land were used for agriculture. Additionally, solar is less intrusive than other possible generating units. It is quieter, uses less water, puts off almost no pollutants, and once a facility is decommissioned, the land can go back to its previous use.

Landowners interested in leasing their land for solar development can check out the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) guide to land leases. The guide’s purpose is to help land owners understand the opportunities and implications of leasing their property for a solar installation. More at http://www.seia.org/research-resources/seia-guide-land-leases-solar.

This is an excerpt from the May 2017 edition of The SOL SOURCE, a monthly electronic newsletter analyzing the latest trends in renewable energy based on our unique position in the solar financing space. To view the full Journal, please subscribe or e-mail pr@solsystems.com.

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