In the Sunshine: How to Know if Your Site is Right for Solar

The pace of solar power development in the United States has picked up in recent years with incentive structures and regulatory support in many regions. In some areas, this may mean that many of the most obviously desirable sites have already been identified and developed. But that doesn’t mean you’re all out of options, not by any stretch. There are still plenty of viable sites for solar development of all scales. You just have to know what to look for.

Incentives and Infrastructure

When deciding whether a particular site is appropriate for solar power production, there are several factors that play a significant role in making that initial determination. Primarily, whether the state or municipality where the site is located has a supportive regulatory framework and incentive structures in place. Proximity to three phase power is also essential, as is enlisting an interested landowner (or an owner willing to sell). If these boxes are checked, the first step is typically to submit an Interconnection Request to the utility so that an impact study can be conducted, and the resultant interconnection costs can be determined.

If the incentives and infrastructure make financial sense, the next step is to further assess whether the site development is feasible. If you’ve had a chance to conduct a shading analysis and prepare a conceptual layout plan of the proposed solar array, our approach is to help identify potential constraints that may impact the desired layout and production capability of the site. If you have not yet prepared a concept plan, our review can help inform the development of a plan.

Site Feasibility Assessment

Determining whether to proceed with a solar development project ultimately comes down to cost-benefit analysis. With the initial financial considerations mentioned above out of the way, you will need to identify any significant constraints that could drive up the cost of development. These constraints could be anything that presents a significant challenge to permitting, designing, or constructing the project.

Our process for identifying constraints begins with a desktop review that leverages readily available online data such as maps, satellite imagery, and state or local GIS data. In this phase of due diligence, we look for red flags, such as sensitive environmental resource areas. If the site is in a drinking water supply watershed or contains a wetland of special significance, for example, the project may be difficult or expensive to permit.

Our assessment also includes a regulatory review, where we research the state and local land use regulations that will govern the project and the permits that will be required. Generally, if a state is supportive of solar development and environmental resources are adequately protected/avoided, obtaining state permits will not be a huge obstacle. At the local level, however, rules can vary widely; some communities may not yet have the necessary legal framework in place to accept a solar development and so it pays to determine early in the process whether local approvals will be difficult or potentially impossible to obtain. The dimensional standards (e.g., minimum setbacks, maximum lot coverage, structure definitions and requirements) promulgated by municipalities can also vary widely, and these standards can dictate the space allowable for development. Pre-application meetings are sometimes offered (even encouraged) and can help answer questions and provide clarity about the permitting process.

This may also be an appropriate time to begin outreach to the local community. Gaining the support and good will of stakeholders including local political leaders, activists, and neighboring property owners can help streamline the approval process.

Initial Field Investigations

If the site feasibility assessment does not identify any insurmountable obstacles, the assessment will include recommendations for next steps, which often involves fieldwork to continue investigating potential constraints and to begin collecting data that will be necessary for the permitting and design process. Following up with fieldwork is always a good idea because online data is not comprehensive and there may be constraints that were not identified in the initial due diligence. We evaluate and prioritize additional investigations that should be considered, such as: conducting environmental assessments to research historical uses of the property for potential issues such as contaminated soils; consulting with a wetland scientist to locate and verify sensitive resource areas that may constrain development; enlisting a licensed surveyor to research potential encumbrances that could restrict development; and consulting with a soil scientist to conduct soil surveys that may be necessary for permit applications or initiate geotechnical investigations to collect data that will be necessary to developing the site design.

This fieldwork can also provide insight on issues concerning site access and constructability. If you can’t easily get equipment where it needs to go or if the cost of the sitework outweighs the benefit of a significantly constrained array, then it may be time to look for other opportunities.

Evaluating the schedule and ROI

The activities described here are focused on identifying cost and schedule drivers that can impact the return on investment of a solar project at the potential site. Once you have developed an understanding of the constraints and a clearer roadmap of the steps required to develop the site, you need to consider the likely timeline because it can determine your ability to meet deadlines to qualify for incentives, which may impact the financial viability of the project. Do any of the necessary field investigations need to be conducted during certain seasons or at a certain time-of-year? Do you have a reasonable timeframe to prepare the site design and permit application materials? Is there a clear process and timeframe for obtaining approval? If not, it may not matter that you have the right amount of sun exposure or a good connection to the electric grid. With a targeted site feasibility approach, you’ll be better positioned to avoid potentially costly mistakes down the road and to assess the true cost of development up front in order to make an informed decision about whether your site will generate a return on your investment.

In a future post, we will explore some example sites to highlight potential constraints and unexpected opportunities posed by different types of locations.


Daniel Windsor Practice Leader Community Development

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