Solar power is a leading form of renewable energy, and the industry is continuing to expand in the United States and globally. According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, in 2020, a new solar project was installed every 75 seconds, with solar comprising 43% of all new energy generating capacity. Bloomberg predicts by 2050, 50% of the world’s energy needs will be met by renewable energy, with solar leading the way.
Considering solar energy’s rapid growth, it makes good business sense for project owners to work closely with local officials to help influence this expansion. Supportive ordinances and regulations are vital to solar power development. Many localities in states on the East Coast, such as Virginia and the Carolinas, do not have ordinances or local regulations in place for renewables, including utility-scale solar facilities. However, an influx of utility-scale solar projects is presented to local governments for development consideration.
Local ordinances or codes establish rules used to shape the cities, counties and towns where we live, work and play. As solar grows, many U.S., governing bodies are scrambling to develop planning and zoning ordinances based on a variety of sources that include federal and state legislation, plans, guidelines and ordinances modeled from other municipalities and regional planning organizations. This can often result in a confusing ordinance that conflicts with standard industry practices and negatively impacts the growth and economic development goals of the surrounding community.
Through the development of regulations, local government officials serve as a guide for private development and how local resources are expended and/or safeguarded.
Whether for large-scale developments or smaller installations, ordinances often include a variety of mandates. Some of the most common address location, landscaping, phasing, decommissioning, setbacks, facility access, bonding requirements, visual appeal and community integration and impact. However, if not well informed, government officials may create standards that result in cost-prohibitive restrictions that require expensive and misguided analysis, studies and mitigation plans.
To support solar development at the local level, it is imperative for project owners to become involved early in discussions about regulations so they can help inform and influence ordinance language and development criteria. Local government officials are typically not familiar with the solar energy development process and the factors that need to be considered. While they enlist planners and consultants for help, early and consistent input from solar industry representatives is critical and can significantly contribute to the overall development of successful rules and regulations. It also provides an opportunity to build community relationships and gain valuable insight into community goals and values.
Below are a few tips for how to get involved early in ordinance discussions.
Commit to understanding all sides of ordinance creation and modifications.
It is important to remember that when crafting solar energy ordinances, municipal officials are often trying to achieve long-range goals and objectives for the communities they serve, while also addressing the intent of federal and state legislation. One key is to help local representatives understand the community-specific benefits of solar, such as environmental health, economic development, and tax-based incentives. It is also important to understand what officials and the community hope to accomplish through the issuance of an ordinance. Acknowledging these concerns and engaging in dialogue helps create trust and open communication during the project development process.
Develop relationships with local officials and engage with the community.
Become involved with local organizations and community groups to help determine which municipalities are developing or revising ordinances. Be visible in the project area because community support can weigh heavily on a project’s development. Speak at public hearings and before planning commissions and boards and at council meetings, and always offer credible industry knowledge when ordinances are being discussed. Bring factual information to the table and avoid discussions that are project specific until an application is submitted. This will create opportunities to be viewed as a credible and valuable resource available to offer educated opinions on the topic of renewable energy.
Explore an integrated engineer-procure-construct (EPC) approach.
Ordinances often differ depending on location, project scale and type. While attorneys are often engaged for regulatory issues, they are not generally equipped to manage projects from start to finish. Working with an integrated EPC firm provides solar proponents with a consistent and knowledgeable team that is ready to make the necessary adjustments to keep your project on track. An integrated EPC team can quickly adapt to legislative changes, manage stakeholder outreach, obtain permits, and maintain timelines and budgets. Having an experienced solar team under one roof saves time, money and worry.
Managing all aspects of solar energy projects, including the regulatory process, requires a planned, well-thought-out approach that can impact both current and future development.