At the onset of solar, projects were typically developed in warm or desert climates. Policy advancements and new technologies are changing the scenery of solar farms. Solar installations have been popping up along mountainsides and in cool northeastern winds. As new landscapes expand the possibilities of solar production, they also bring new siting and permitting challenges.

As developers and utilities establish solar projects in diverse geographies, one of the biggest obstacles is finding land that is not only available but will also produce the largest quantity of power in the most cost-effective way. This can be particularly challenging in highly developed areas like the Northeast and coastal communities.

Developers who spend capital upfront and enlist the help of a firm with expertise in solar development to evaluate several possible sites before making a final site selection will be better served in the long-term. Performing a conceptual design, assessing natural resources and accounting for any restrictions in the area all assist a developer in selecting the site with the most optimal conditions.

Each site should also be evaluated on five key criteria during the selection process:

  1. Project interconnection procedures
  2. Natural resources in the area
  3. Property zoning
  4. Character of landscape
  5. Abutting land owners

Any one of these factors could impact a project. For instance, if the property sits in a forested area, the developer would need to cut down a significant number of trees to create space for the installation and reduce shading. This could result in backlash from community residents. Early planning and community engagement can help prevent these key factors from becoming barriers to a solar project.

Many communities may also embrace a “not in my backyard” mentality, while other communities may have regulatory uncertainties that could make development less desirable. States with incentive programs, such as Massachusetts and New York, are seeing growth in solar development. While economic incentives in these states are appealing, the topography, land cover, natural resources and regulatory hurdles pose additional challenges. A thorough evaluation of these items upfront can aid site selection.

With any project, there are going to be a significant number of unknowns. For instance, if you haven’t done borings to test the foundation of a site and potential geotechnical risks, there could be unanticipated costs that drive up a budget and make a site less cost-effective.

Taking an overarching view of potential properties before development begins can help reduce unknown obstacles and assist with better site selection.


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Rob Young, regional environmental practice manager for Burns & McDonnell in the Northeast, leads a team that supports more than $10 billion in major infrastructure programs through the performance and management of natural resource surveys, siting, permitting, environmental compliance, stakeholder management/outreach and land acquisition.