Photo of workers installing solar panels

As the impacts of climate change are increasingly felt by communities, a growing number of state and local governments have taken direct action by prioritizing the transition from fossil fuels to clean-energy consumption at the local level.

As of 2020, more than 200 cities have pledged to achieve 100-percent clean electricity —also known as “net zero emissions”—by 2050 or sooner.1 Utility-scale or large-scale solar is an important tool for many local governments in meeting these ambitious goals. Utility-scale solar is a fast-growing industry that now produces electricity at prices competitive with all other forms of energy generation.2 Given that local jurisdictions play an instrumental role in nearly every phase of solar development, local officials need training and resources to ensure that they maximize the benefits of large-scale solar while minimizing potential tradeoffs. ICMA’s new program Solar@Scale provides just that.

Solar@Scale is a collaborative effort between ICMA and the American Planning Association that offers resources designed to help local government officials familiarize themselves not only with the landscape of the large-scale solar market, but also the many tools and strategies available to them. The recently released guidebook, Solar@Scale: A Local Government Guidebook for Improving Large-Scale Solar Development Outcomes, is informed by both private and public stakeholder input and designed for local government practitioners that perhaps lack the resources or capacity to hire renewable experts of their own. The guidebook outlines scalable procedures and tools for planners and local officials to take advantage of opportunities in context-sensitive ways. It addresses topics such as increasing demand, community planning, reducing land-use conflicts, and much more. Included here are some examples of what you can find in the guidebook and how these practices can work for your community.

Utility Solar Is Cost-Competitive, and Local Governments Can Enhance the Competition

Understanding the landscape of the solar market is essential to local government practitioners interested in utility-scale solar. The solar industry has experienced tremendous growth over the past several years. Between 2014 and 2020, the estimated total installed capacity of grid-connected photovoltaic (PV) and concentrating solar power (CSP) systems went from 17.6 gigawatts (GW) to 75.6 GW.3 During that same period, the total number of grid-connected solar facilities with capacities of at least one megawatt (capable of powering an average of 190 homes) grew from 1,249 to 4,538.4

The rapid expansion of solar is partially a result of declining costs. From 2010 to 2019, median lifetime costs of PV systems with capacities of at least five megawatts (MW) have decreased by 84 percent.5 Today, utility-scale solar produces electricity at prices competitive with all other forms of energy generation.6 Competitive production has been made possible by several factors, including advances in panel efficiency and technology, as well as an increase in manufacturing efficiency. However, another contributing factor is the reduction of soft costs, such as permitting, inspection, and interconnection; sales tax; engineering, procurement, and construction; and developer overhead and profit. Costs to cover these activities have remained at about the same proportion of total costs, between 32 to 44 percent, for utility-scale PV.7

Local governments that are new to solar or are still developing processes for the first time can have high soft costs due to inefficiencies in their permitting, inspection, and interconnection practices. Unfortunately, these inefficiencies can reduce demand. ICMA’s Solar@Scale Guidebook outlines a number of paths to demonstrate how local government officials can improve local demand for large-scale solar development through the policy development and implementation. Strategies include the following:

Implementing zoning updates that explicitly permit large scale solar development in one or more areas in the jurisdiction.

  • Removes unintentional barriers to solar development, and establishes incentives for projects that align with community goals.
  • Example: Sweden, New York, offers relaxed development standards to “solar farms” that provide specific community benefits.

Process improvements that optimize discretionary land-use reviews for large-scale solar projects.

  • Can increase demand by shortening the review timeline.
  • Example: Linn County, Iowa, provides an informational webpage about the application and review process for large-scale solar.

Development partnerships that bring large-scale solar energy systems to local, government-owned sites.

  • Increase demand by providing pre-approved locations for projects and potentially customers for the power produced.

Technical or financial assistance programs for solar developers.

  • Can increase demand for projects that meet program and location criteria.
  • Example: The city of Orlando, Florida, serves as an anchor subscriber by supporting a shared solar project through subscriptions to municipal buildings.

These activities can help reduce soft costs and stimulate demand. Should renewable energy incentives and low costs continue, both the demand for and growth of utility-scale solar is expected to increase at such a rate that the U.S. Energy Information Administration projects installed capacity of larger PV systems could grow to 390.4 GW by 2030.8 To effectively handle these changes, local government officials and developers will need to work together to strategically disperse this demand. One way to prepare for this is through establishing effective community planning processes.

Community Planning

An effective community planning process can help identify, reduce, and eliminate potential barriers to utility-scale solar development. The Solar@Scale Guidebook outlines what steps local jurisdictions can take to equitably develop or update a community plan. These steps include establishing a shared vision and high-level goals for solar development that reflect the shared values and priorities of the community. These may include topics such as clean energy transitions, low-impact siting and design, equitable development, and community resilience. Examples include Stearns County, Minnesota’s 2040 Comprehensive Plan that not only encourages solar development throughout the county, but also recommends siting solar projects in ways that reduce land-use conflicts and require habitat friendly ground cover on project sites.

Reducing Land-Use Conflicts

Although the substantial growth of large-scale solar has a number of positive impacts, it is not without tradeoffs. Large-scale solar projects are less land intensive than other forms of new development, but the United States will likely need to devote an additional 1.55 million acres to solar development between 2020 and 2030 to meet the projected demand.9

While the American Southwest has the best solar resource potential, concentrating solar development there or in any one region would not be cost effective or reliable. Instead, large-scale solar projects are ideally located on the same grid as end users to maximize transmission and distribution efficiency. Solar developers will therefore need to disperse solar installations (and consequently, the demand for space) where demand for solar exists across the country. This means that the expansion of solar will likely affect every community in some way.

As noted in the Solar@Scale Guidebook, there are steps that local governments can take to mitigate the impact of land use. For instance, taking advantage of previously developed sites such as brownfields can help meet some of this demand. If grid interconnection is feasible, large-scale solar development can co-locate on space occupied by other land-intensive uses, such as agriculture, transit corridors, and landfills.10 Local concerns about losing agricultural land or important ecosystems to solar development are valid. However, these concerns can be mitigated through open community engagement, strategic land analysis, and other ways. In fact, the use of mapping software in the San Joaquin Valley identified over 470,000 acres of non-controversial land, demonstrating how communities can collaborate across stakeholders to reduce land contention for PV development.

Conclusion

Local governments play a pivotal role in the development of utility scale solar. Based on current projections, the industry’s growth will likely have an impact on a significant number of local governments across the United States. To ensure policy makers are not caught unprepared and that communities can maximize the potential benefits from these new developments, it is vital that local government officials have the strategies and tools they need available to them. The Solar@Scale Guidebook is available for download at no cost.

Additionally, over the next few years, the Solar@Scale team aims to train over 1,000 local government officials to take advantage of opportunities in context-sensitive ways that simplify large-scale solar development on private sites. To learn more about these opportunities, we invite you to visit the links in the Resources box below.

 

GABRIEL RUSK assists in managing the U.S Department of Energy-funded program Solar@Scale, as well as the SolSmart designation program at ICMA. Gabriel holds a master’s degree in Public Interest and Private Good from Xavier University. (grusk@icma.org)

 

 

 


Resources

For updates on the Solar@Scale Guidebook, related webinars, and general information about the Solar@Scale program, sign up here.

To attend ICMA’s upcoming Solar@Scale Virtual Workshop, sign up here.

For additional information about Solar@Scale, contact Scott Annis at sannis@icma.org or Gabriel Rusk at grusk@icma.org.


Endnotes

1 Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). 2020. “Race to 100% Clean.”

2 U.S. Energy Information Administration (USEIA). 2021. “Annual Energy Outlook 2021.”

3 U.S. Energy Information Administration (USEIA). 2020. “Electric Power Annual 2019.”

4 U.S. Energy Information Administration (USEIA). 2021. “Preliminary Monthly Electric Generator Inventory.”

5 Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab). 2020. “Utility-Scale Solar.”

6 U.S. Energy Information Administration (USEIA). 2021. “Annual Energy Outlook 2021.”

7 David Feldman, Vignesh Ramasamy, Ran Fu, Ashwin Ramdas, Jal Desai, and Robert Margolis. 2021. U.S. Solar Photovoltaic System and Energy Storage Cost Benchmark: Q1 2020. Golden, Colorado: National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

8 U.S. Energy Information Administration (USEIA). 2021 “Annual Energy Outlook 2021.”

 

9 National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). 2020. “Cambium.”

 

10 Gross, Samantha. 2020. “Renewables, Land Use, and Local Opposition in the United States.” Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution.

 

Acknowledgment: This material is based upon work supported by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) under the Solar Energy Technologies Office Award Numbers DE-EE00009000.

Full Legal Disclaimer: This report was prepared as an account of work sponsored by an agency of the United States Government. Neither the United States Government nor any agency thereof, nor any of their employees, makes any warranty, express or implied, or assumes any legal liability or responsibility for the accuracy, completeness, or usefulness of any information, apparatus, product, or process disclosed, or represents that its use would not infringe privately owned rights. Reference herein to any specific commercial product, process, or service by trade name, trademark, manufacturer, or otherwise does not necessarily constitute or imply its endorsement, recommendation, or favoring by the United States Government or any agency thereof. The views and opinions of authors expressed herein do not necessarily state or reflect those of the United States Government or any agency thereof.

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