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Siting, Permitting & Land Use for Utility-Scale Solar

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Harnessing the sun’s energy and converting it to electricity offers one of the most technologically viable and cost-effective means to produce pollution-free, sustainable power. Generating electricity at the scale necessary to achieve ambitious carbon emission reduction goals requires long-term planning for efficient and responsible project development. 

Responsible Land Use

There is tremendous solar power generation potential in the United States. In five minutes, enough sunlight shines on the continental U.S. to satisfy our electricity demand for an entire month. The U.S. Southwest has particularly abundant and high quality resources for utility-scale solar power. Research from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory shows that the entire U.S. could be powered by utility-scale solar occupying just 0.6% of the nation's land mass.

Depending on the specific technology, a utility-scale solar power plant may require between 5 and 10 acres per megawatt (MW) of generating capacity. Like fossil fuel power plants, solar plant development requires some grading of land and clearing of vegetation. For example, many concentrating solar power (CSP) plants need to be constructed on flat land with less than 1-percent slope. Utility-scale photovoltaics (PV), on the other hand, can utilize land with steeper slopes and no water access.

Siting & Permitting

Siting and permitting a solar power plant is a complex process. Land use, access to transmission, and water rights must be considered, and securing access to a suitable site is only the first step in the siting process. Solar power plants are subject to strict review processes through federal, state, and local regulators. Solar companies provide detailed project construction plans, conduct numerous environmental studies, and propose mitigation strategies to aid in this process. These practices, as well as today’s utility-scale solar power technologies, ensure that any environmental impact is minimized.

The majority of solar power plants today are located on privately-held land. When a power plant is proposed on private land, various state and local agencies must grant the necessary approvals prior to construction. The siting and permitting process can take more than three to five years to complete. SEIA supports the adoption of best practices and policies that expedite the permitting of worthy projects.

When power plants are proposed on federal land managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the BLM, in coordination with other agencies such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and state and local authorities, is authorized to permit development of solar and other energy projects. SEIA supports the use of federal land for solar power plant development and is actively engaged in BLM’s process for crafting the rules that govern how a solar power plant is permitted and built.

Environmental Review

Environmental review of a proposed solar power plant on public land can take three to five years. This time period can be less if the plant is located on private or previously disturbed land. Many areas ideal for USP development are on public lands overseen by the BLM. The BLM right-of-way (ROW) permits undergo a strict review process before being issued, as required by the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969. Companies provide detailed project construction plans, environmental impact assessments and mitigation strategies. The BLM, in coordination with state and local authorities, conducts analyses of the site and holds public hearings with members of the community to gauge the impact of the project on the area. An official Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) is issued for each project before an official Record of Decision is announced.