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Regulatory and Permitting Information Desktop Toolkit

Solar Site Considerations Overview (2)

Preliminary site selection for potential development of power generating facilities focuses on a number of different factors, including the location of the land, any potential environmental impacts, water access and water rights issues, and the accessibility to transmission lines. If the land being considered is managed by a federal agency there may be certain restrictions limiting what the land can be used for. The developer should consider what agency or governmental body will oversee the permitting process as requirements can vary.

Site Considerations Overview Process

2.1 - Consider Project Location

Statutory or regulatory limitations require that certain lands be excluded from consideration for development. These lands generally include U.S. National Monuments, federally designated Wilderness Areas, and U.S. Forest Service primitive areas. Prior to substantial investments, a developer should research whether a proposed site or area is available for development. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC),Bureau of Reclamation (BOR), U.S. Forest Service (USFS), Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) provide guidance on federal exclusions and site specific stipulations to protect environmental resources.

Development may be restricted on a site for a variety of reasons, including:

  • National park, monument, lakeshore, parkway, battlefield, or recreational area;
  • National wildlife refuge, game preserve, fish hatchery;
  • Wild and Scenic Rivers;
  • Wilderness area or wilderness study area;
  • Indian or Military reservation;
  • Cultural and historic value;
  • Recreational, geologic, wildlife, or scenic value;
  • Fish presence value;
  • Threatened and endangered species;
  • Impacts to Military operations;
  • Land and Water Conservation Fund areas; or
  • Urban Park and Recreation Recovery lands.

Under Executive Order 11988, each federal agency is required to take action to reduce the risk of flood loss, to minimize the impact of floods on human safety, health and welfare, and to restore and preserve the values of floodplains. If a proposed project is located within a floodplain, then federal agencies are required to take specific actions during environmental review under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). For example, the federal agency will be required to consider alternatives to avoid adverse effects and incompatible development in floodplains areas.

Each BLM and Forest Service field office has a Land Use Management Plan outlining site-specific exclusion information and stipulations for mitigation of environmental concerns. Visit the BLM or USFS for links to local offices.

Resources to Determine Land Use Limitations

The Western Renewable Energy Zones initiative addresses exclusions of potentially available areas in its Phase 1 Report, which you can find on the Western Governors' Association Energy Website.

The Western Governors' Association has developed the Crucial Habitat Assessment Tool (CHAT) which allows developers to access an online system of maps displaying crucial wildlife habitat and corridors across the western United States. The developer will be able to make an initial determination as to whether the proposed project will interfere with a wildlife area. CHAT is designed to reduce conflicts during the development process and ensure the protection of wildlife through incorporating such considerations in the land use decision-making process.

The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) in conjunction with the United States Department of Defense has developed the Renewable Energy and Defense Geospatial Database (READ-Database) to provide Geographic Information Systems (GIS) data to assist developers in choosing an appropriate site for their renewable energy project. The READ-Database highlights possible project locations which are unlikely to interfere with military activities, and have the fewest environmental conflicts. To access the READ-Database, developers must submit a request to the NRDC on their website.

The BLM’s Solar Energy Program amended eighty-nine BLM land use plans in six states under the Solar PEIS. The study identified Solar Energy Zones (SEZ) within the six states that are well suited for utility-scale solar development. The Solar PEIS facilitates utility-scale solar development and streamlines environmental compliance in SEZ’s. See BLM Right-of-Way Application Process Overview:
3-FD-c (1)
for the detailed process.

2.2 - Consider Land Access

Dependent upon land ownership of the proposed development site, the process for obtaining land access and/or a lease will vary. Reviewing the potential lease process can prevent surprises. Many federal agencies have varying requirements for siting projects on land which they manage. For example, if a project is located near a national park and could impact or impair National Park Service (NPS) resources, then the developer is required to coordinate with NPS to determine whether the impact would harm the integrity of park resources or values. The developer should consider any federal agencies or land that may be impacted by the proposed project to determine whether any further siting restrictions may be applicable.

In order for a developer to construct a solar energy facility on a proposed site, the developer must have an interest in the surface rights of the land. If the proposed site is on federal land, the developer must apply to the surface management agency for access to the surface rights. There are a number of different ways for the developer to negotiate the surface rights, but depending on the agency, access to the land is typically granted through long-term leases, rights-of-way, or special use authorizations.

Although utility-scale solar facilities only require the developer to obtain surface rights to the land being used for development, consideration should also be given to subsurface mineral rights as well. Because solar projects have the potential to cover large areas of land, there may be other developers conducting exploration or development beneath the surface for oil, gas, or other subsurface minerals. To avoid potential interruption, solar developers should inquire about both the surface and subsurface land rights associated with the potential development site. 43 CFR 2801.

Land Access Process Overview: 3

2.3 – Consider Water Access and Water Rights

Water access and water rights are predominantly governed by state law. Although water requirements are a primary site consideration for all renewable energy project developers, the requirements will differ greatly depending on the type of project.

For solar projects, a developer may require access to water for such uses as dust suppression for roads, construction activities, and maintenance. In addition, access to water is necessary for concentrated solar power facilities. Water Access & Water Rights Overview: 19

2.4 - Review Applicable State and Local Law on Development Requirements

When considering a site for development, it may be useful to review some of the permits that will be required where the project is located. Reviewing the questions that will be considered during On-Site Evaluations will be useful in identifying potential issues with a particular location.

Construction Permits Overview: 6 On-Site Evaluation Process: 10

2.5 - Consider Environmental Process

The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) of 1970 requires Federal agencies to consider the potential environmental consequences of their proposed action, and any reasonable alternatives, before deciding whether and in what form to take an action.

The NEPA process is often the most time consuming process in permitting a project site. It is often required for multiple phases of the project, so it is a good idea to list the phases early on in project development so that multiple phases may be addressed in one EA/EIS.

Environmental Overview: 9

2.6 - Consider Transmission Siting and Interconnection Overview

The proximity to existing transmission and access to potential rights-of-way is key to a successful project.

Transmission Overview: 8

2.7 - Contact Lead Agency

An important early step in project development is determining which agency (or agencies) is most central to the project. A lead agency is the public agency that has the principal responsibility for approving a project. Lead agency determination is affected by surface management (Federal, tribal, state, or private) or land/mineral rights ownership. In some jurisdictions there is a single agency officially designated as the lead agency for the entire project. In other circumstances, there is no single, dominant agency, while in others an agency may only be the lead on certain matters (e.g. environmental issues) or project phases.

The permitting process differs depending on the lead agency, so scheduling a meeting early in the development process is important. This meeting should precede any filings of applications and permits, since requirements obtained in a pre-filing meeting will heavily set the overall direction and timing of the project. The lead agency will often work directly with other coordinating or participating agencies; when this occurs developers are not allowed to interact with a coordinating agency directly. It may take one to two years between a pre-filing meeting with the lead agency and formally submitting permitting documents to that agency.

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