By Rick Haglund
Land is your most important asset in a renewable project. It doesn’t matter how much the sun shines - if you don’t have land, you don’t have a project. Likewise, if you can’t secure permitting, your project will fail.
Most solar power plants today are located on privately held land. A recently introduced bipartisan bill, the Public Land Renewable Energy Development Act (PLREDA) of 2019, aims to promote the development of wind, solar, and geothermal energy, on public lands.
Solar energy is a critical component of a comprehensive climate action plan. Solar projects are subject to a vast number of approvals from governmental agencies. Permitting requirements can significantly impact the cost and development time of a project. Understanding the entities that may be involved in the permitting process, and determining the renewable energy commitments made by local governments, will be of tremendous importance in the due diligence phase of any project.
Permits for power plants on federal land fall under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM). The BLM (in collaboration with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and other state and local agencies) is authorized to issue permits for the development of solar energy projects. Environmental review of a proposed power plant on public land may take three to five years, unless the plant is located on previously distributed land.
Federal, state, and local regulators must follow strict review processes and guidelines. Developers must provide detailed project construction plans, environmental studies, and proposals to ensure that environmental impact is minimized.
Designing a strategic framework can help developers identify how to navigate the process, what may be involved in granting permits, and learn how to address potential obstacles. The following tactics can help ensure successful solar permitting:
Interact with potential opponents. Understanding their issues and concerns can be of value in formulating your proposed mitigation strategies. This will also prepare you to answer difficult questions during town hall meetings or press interviews.
If the project involves federal grants, loan guarantees, or permits, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) may apply. Many states also have their own environmental review requirements. If authorizations are needed for protected species or jurisdictional waters impacts, other agencies may be involved. Identifying and sequencing relevant permitting channels is essential to meeting project deadlines.
The Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) http://www.seia.org is an excellent resource for solar market intelligence.
Take advantage of opportunities to work directly with agencies to assist in preparing underlying studies, or commenting on drafts of environmental documents. These agencies often have limited resources – supporting them not only creates goodwill, but it allows you to address difficult issues proactively.
Endangered species issues often determine where and how major solar projects go forward. The Endangered Species Act has a strong set of public policies protecting these species. It is critical to determine whether such issues exist, to develop a strategy for addressing them.
Solar project permitting is complex, and subject to unexpected challenges. Preparation and foresight go a long way towards avoiding unpleasant and costly surprises. Designing and following a strategic matrix will minimize delays, and help you achieve your financial and scheduling goals.
Rick Haglund is Director of Business Development at TerraPro Solutions. He has provided asset due diligence for over 100 utility solar and wind projects, and multiple large-scale transmission projects throughout the United States. His expertise includes overseeing the operations of ALTA surveys, civil, environmental, aerial mapping/LIDAR, as well as due diligence surveillance, permitting, and fatal flaw analysis.
TerraPro Solutions | terraprosolutions.com