California Solar Permitting Process (CA)
The steps of the California solar permitting process are summarized in the chart below. Roll over each section for a summary of the regulations and permits it covers. Click a section to learn more about the required permits and regulations related to that topic.
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Solar Development in California
Initially, solar developers in California need to ensure that the applicable city or county Land Use Plan (LUP) allows for solar development projects.
A developer will need to obtain a lease from the California State Lands Commission (Commission) if the proposed project will occupy any portion of state lands that fall under the jurisdiction of the Commission. The Commission has jurisdiction and management control over sovereign state land and California school lands. In order to obtain the lease, the developer must submit an application to the Commission. The Commission then conducts an environmental review before deciding whether to issue or deny the lease. Developers may also be required to obtain a right-of-way or an encroachment permit from the Commission for ancillary development, such as access roads or transmission lines.
In addition, privately owned land that is restricted in use because of a Williamson Act contract or a Farmland Security Zone contract may be eligible to rescind the contract and enter into a PV solar-use easement if certain conditions are met. The California Government Code sets out the requirements that a parcel of land and the landowner must meet in order to be eligible to enter into a solar-use easement.
Developers of solar thermal power generating facilities must obtain licensing from the California Energy Commission (CEC) for construction of a power plant with a net generating capacity of 50 MW or more and all related facilities dedicated or essential to the operation of the thermal power plant (e.g., transmission lines to first point of interconnection with the transmission grid, water lines, access roads, etc.). Concentrated Solar Power (CSP) plants are “thermal” power plants and must go through the CEC process if they are over 50 MW. Photovoltaic (PV) solar facilities are not “thermal” power plants and do not need to obtain a permit from the CEC. When subject to the CEC’s Application for Certification (AFC) process, developers must complete the AFC siting process before the CPUC can issue a CPCN, and the CEC conducts and environmental review as part of the AFC process in lieu of CEQA. If the developer will construct a CSP facility on land managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the project will also be subject to the BLM’s siting process. The BLM and the CEC signed a Memorandum of Understanding which delegates certain responsibilities to each agency. All information gathered during the combined siting process is shared between the BLM and CEC and both agencies will coordinate with each other during the entire process, not just the environmental review phase. If the proposed project meets all of the joint siting process requirements, the developer will receive a right-of-way from the BLM as well as a siting permit from the CEC.
Developers who are constructing PV facilities that are over 50 MW must submit an application for a CPCN to the CPUC for review, and CPUC will conduct an environmental study to determine whether the project will have a significant effect on the environment. Developers may be required to participate in a public hearing on the application.
California has a hybrid water law system, containing elements of both riparian and prior appropriation water rights. In times of shortages, riparian rights are superior to appropriative rights, and later appropriators are subordinate to prior appropriators. The California State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) has exclusive jurisdiction over surface water rights. For water uses involved in solar development projects (plant operations at a CSP facility, dust suppression for roads, construction activities, etc.) developers will likely need to obtain water through municipal or governmental supplies, private lease/purchase supplies, a short or long term water transfer, or a new water right. The California State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) administers the rules and regulations pertaining to water rights for surface waters and subterranean streams under Title 23 CCR Waters and the California Water Code.
Federal Regulations and Permits for Solar Development
Federal land management agencies often have authority to allow development on federal land. For solar facilities the land managing agency will generally grant access to the land via a right-of-way (ROW) rather than a lease. The use of the land must conform to the Land Use Plan (LUP) that has been established by the agency, and if it does not, a revision or amendment of the plan may be required. The managing agency will be required to perform a National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) analysis before issuing the ROW. In addition, land management agencies will often condition the ROW on the procurement of all other permits required for the construction of the facility.
It should be noted that some agencies have developed programs tailored specifically to solar development on federal land. In some cases, the agencies have developed a Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement that can be used to shorten the NEPA process. In others, the managing agency has developed a series of policies that are designed to streamline solar ROW applications. The relevant managing agency should be contacted for more information regarding the solar ROW application process.
Land Use Planning
Solar projects on federal land must be consistent with the applicable Land Use Plan (LUP). Most federal lands are managed either by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) or the United States Forest Service (USFS). The BLM’s land use planning authority is found in the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 (FLPMA) and many other public laws. FLPMA requires the BLM to develop and maintain LUPs called Resource Management Plans (RMPs) that cover individual planning units. The USFS’ land use planning authority is found in the National Forest Management Act of 1976. The LUPs, called Land Management Plans (LMPs), are prepared and implemented for each National Forest.
Siting a solar utility project on federal land requires permission from the managing agency. As stated above, federal land managing agencies will generally grant permission for utility-scale solar development in the form of a ROW. A ROW can be any legal instrument that authorizes a holder to use and/or occupy federal land under a grant. Most land management agencies have general regulations governing applications for a ROW, and some agencies have also promulgated specific procedures that relate specifically to solar development.
A NEPA analysis will usually have to be performed before the ROW can be issued. The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) established policy and goals for the protection, maintenance, and enhancement of the environment and outlines the process for implementing these goals within federal agencies. Projects that involve a "major federal action" trigger the NEPA process. Issuing a ROW on federal land generally requires a NEPA analysis.
In some cases, the land management agency will develop Programmatic Environmental Impact Statements which can be used to shorten and streamline the NEPA process. For example, the BLM has developed a Solar Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (SPEIS) for six southwestern states. The SPEIS provides NEPA analysis that can be applied to ROW applications and also outlines the BLM’s solar ROW application process and policies.
In addition, some agencies charge varying fees depending on whether the solar facility is producing energy. For example, the BLM rental schedule for utility-scale solar ROWs consists of two components. The first component is an annual, per acre base rental fee. The fee is based on the value of the land subject to the ROW. The initial base rent is due upon the issuance of the ROW. The second component is a megawatt (MW) capacity fee. The MW capacity fee is charged on an annual basis, starting when the facility begins producing electricity. The MW capacity fee is implemented over five years after the start of electrical generation to allow for diligent testing and operation, with the fee increasing by 20% each year.
Developers seeking to construct a utility-scale solar facility on federal lands must obtain a ROW or lease and all other necessary permits. Developers may choose to seek status as a Qualifying Facility under the Public Utilities Regulatory Act (PURPA). Qualifying Facility (QF) status allows the developers to sell energy or capacity to a utility, to purchase certain services from utilities, and provides relief from certain regulatory burdens. Developers may also qualify as Exempt Wholesale Generators if they are independent power producers that exclusively sell energy to wholesale customers and complete the self-certification process overseen by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). Obtaining EWG status can exempt the generator from certain reporting and accounting regulations under the Energy Policy Act of 2005 and allows the generator to sell power at market-based rates.