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Farmland Solar Policy Design Toolkit

Land Use & Energy Permitting

Topics

Understanding Land Use & Energy Permitting

State and local laws primarily regulate decisions about how and where we build electricity infrastructure, including new solar arrays.

While the federal government is involved in the siting of natural gas, hydroelectric plants, and certain transmission infrastructure, it has no authority whatsoever over the siting of solar arrays on private land. Rather, local cities and towns usually exercise their fundamental police powers over solar array land-use and siting decisions, in very different manners. In addition, a significant subset of states have established a state process for siting solar arrays and other energy generation infrastructure, which may override or legally preempt the exercise of traditional local land use authority.

The administrative permitting process for solar development governs the size, location, and design of solar arrays that may be constructed in any given area, including on farmland.

Policymakers can design permitting requirements designed to fast-track low-impact projects, increase oversight of large-scale arrays, preserve agricultural land uses, and ensure farmer access to clean energy.

Note: Solar facilities proposed for construction on federal land fall within the jurisdiction of the agency charged with the land’s management, most often the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management (“BLM”) or the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service.

State land-use and energy permitting policies include all the necessary steps required to obtain approval to install a solar array.

Permitting policies differ from state to state, and may require submission of a single application to a state-level siting board or separate approvals from state public utility commissions and municipal-level planning, zoning, and conservation boards. The process usually includes submission of application materials detailing project characteristics, including facility size, generating capacity, land-use footprint, potential impacts to neighbors, aesthetics, interconnection with the electric grid, environmental or agricultural impacts, and decommissioning plans.

“Although the states are constrained by the Supremacy Clause and the Dormant Commerce Clause, it should be taken as a given that states have power to consider the environmental, economic, or other police-power-related implications of electricity generation within their borders.”

— Emily Hammond, The Energy In-betweens, 59 Jurimetrics J. 167, 175–76 (2019)

A state or municipal permitting authority reviews the proposed project for compliance with regulatory criteria and may place conditions on the project before issuing a land use or energy permit.

Multiple permits may be required, and proposed solar arrays may need to participate in more than one permitting process in front of different authorities to obtain final approval to construct and operate the solar array. Generally speaking, larger projects with greater potential environmental impacts are likely to trigger more permitting requirements.

Energy Permitting

Energy permitting refers to permission to build and operate an energy generating plant specifically, as compared to non-energy forms of land use development, like construction of a new building.

Many states require approval by a state public utility commission or state-level siting council for new energy generating facilities over a certain capacity size or acreage.

The public utility commission issues a certificate of approval (usually  called a certificate of public good, public need or public convenience) to approve such facilities. Some states exempt small-scale distributed generating plants from the requirement to obtain a certificate of approval from the public utility commission, rather, these distributed generation plants are subject to a state or local land use permitting process that is not energy specific.

Public utility commissions exercise different authority under disparate state law in different states. State authority varies as to:

  • Whether states exercise any authority power generating facilities;
  • Whether such authority applies only to projects over a certain minimum size;
  • Whether state authority applies only to projects of regulated monopoly utilities, or whether it also includes independent power generation companies; and,
  • Whether states exercise preemptive legal authority over otherwise local land-use decisions.

Siting, land use, and environmental approvals might be consolidated into a single approval from the public utility commission or a state siting council.

When a public utility commission issues a consolidated certificate of approval, the process may include trial-like regulatory hearings with submission of evidence and expert testimony on issues including land use, siting, and environmental impact. Other state agencies may lend their expertise by reviewing proposed projects and providing input to the public utility commission as to whether conditions should be set on project approval.

OR, siting, land use, and environmental approvals might NOT be consolidated under public utility commission or siting council jurisdiction.

This means that proposed projects obtaining a certificate of approval from the commission still must obtain additional state or local land use, environmental, or siting approvals. In certain states, the public utility commission plays no role in the siting of new solar arrays.

Land Use Permitting

Traditional state land use development and environmental regulations are likely to apply to new solar installations, including review for compliance with state laws regarding wetlands, endangered species, other protected natural resources, storm water run-off, land disturbance, surface and ground water quality, shoreline protection, agricultural protection, and erosion prevention.

Many states require approval by a state siting authority for new energy generating facilities over a certain capacity size or acreage. State siting authorities, like public utility commissions above, may be responsible for issuing a permit that consolidates state and local land use and environmental concerns. 

Additionally, local zoning restrictions and land use ordinances are likely to apply to proposed solar arrays, and may require analysis of impacts to historic districts, aesthetics, setbacks, and review by a local zoning authority, planning board, and/or conservation commission.

As part of project siting, environmental impact review, and other permitting processes, there are also frequently requirements for public involvement including public hearings and community meetings, as well as opportunities for the public to submit comments to the permitting agency or agencies.

Compare: Division of State and Local Authority over Solar Siting

The Connecticut Siting Council has jurisdiction over solar arrays greater than 1 megawatt in capacity.

Local regulations apply to solar arrays less than or equal to 1 megawatt in capacity.

C.G.S.A. §16-50i(a) (2014)

 

The New Hampshire Site Evaluation Committee  has authority over solar arrays greater than 30 megawatts in capacity. The SEC may review projects between 5 and 30 megawatts in capacity on its own motion, or the petition of the applicant or 2 petitioners.

Local government regulation applies to all solar arrays less than 5 megawatts in capacity, and all solar arrays less than 30 megawatts in capacity that are not under SEC authority by petition or motion.

N.H. Rev. Stat. § 162-H:2 (2017)

The Public Utilities Commission has authority over all proposed energy generation facilities, including all solar arrays.

Vermont entirely preempts municipalities from requiring local approvals for solar arrays.

The Maine Department of Environmental Protection, in cooperation with the Maine Land Use Planning Commission, has jurisdiction over solar “development” projects over 20 acres, solar “structures” that include areas to be stripped or graded and not to be revegetated which cause a total project to occupy a ground area in excess of 3 acres, as well as solar arrays located in unorganized territories.

Organized municipalities have jurisdiction over solar arrays outside of the DEP’s authority. Municipalities may petition to administer siting approval after adopting approved land use plans and regulations. This changes the threshold for DEP review of “structures” to 7 acres for municipalities determined to have review capacity.

38 M.R.S. §§ 482(2), 482(6)(B) (2010); 483-A (2004) and 488(19); 12 M.R.S. § 685A-4A

The New York State Board on Electric Generation Siting and the Environment has authority over solar arrays 25 megawatts and greater in capacity.

Local governments issue siting approvals for solar arrays less than 25 megawatts in capacity.

NY Pub Serv L § 162 (2016)

Criteria for Project Approval

Whether at the local or the state level, new solar arrays may need to submit documentation of project characteristics to a siting authority that evaluates some or all of the following criteria:

  • Compliance with building and electrical codes
  • Consistency with local land use planning and zoning
  • Compliance with setback requirements
  • Aesthetic evaluation
  • Effects on wetlands and other natural resources
  • Public health and safety
  • Greenhouse gas impacts
  • Effects on agricultural lands and soils
  • Decommissioning standards
  • Grid interconnection
  • Energy system stability and reliability
  • Consistency with state energy needs

State Direction of Municipal Permitting Processes

States may establish state-wide zoning provisions or require that local governments use a particular process in implementing planning and zoning laws that govern solar development.

For example, some states have enacted zoning preference laws that prevent the “unreasonable regulation” of solar development or declare solar to be a “beneficial use” within the meaning of their zoning laws. This can establish a presumption in a zoning process that the zoning permit should be approved for the solar project unless the zoning authority finds that the solar project is not a beneficial use. Other states have passed “solar easement” and “solar access” laws to help preserve access to land or light for solar energy generation.

Compare: State Direction of Municipal Authority Over Solar Land Use

Solar Access Enabling Act

Massachusetts provides that, “Zoning ordinances or by-laws adopted or amended pursuant to section five of this chapter may encourage the use of solar energy systems and protect solar access by regulation of the orientation of streets, lots and buildings, maximum building height limits, minimum building set back requirements, limitations on the type, height and placement of vegetation and other provisions.” M.G.L.A 40A § 9B (1985)

Solar Easement Enabling Act

New Jersey’s Solar Easements Act provides that “any easement obtained for the purpose of exposure of a solar energy device shall be created in writing and shall be subject to the same conveyancing and instrument recording requirements as other easements.” N.J. Stat. Ann. § 46:3-25 (1978).

Statewide Definition of Solar as a Permitted Use

Oregon mandates that “the installation and use on a residential structure of a solar photovoltaic energy system or a solar thermal energy system is an outright permitted use in any zone in which residential structures are allowed.” O.R.S. § 215.439 (2019).

Statewide Solar Permit Application for Municipal Use

Rhode Island municipalities were required to use the statewide solar energy permit application beginning on January 1, 2018. The statewide solar energy permit application is intended to “provide applicants with a predictable and universal process for obtaining a single permit from municipalities that encompasses both building and electric permits for solar photovoltaic systems.”  300-RICR-00-00-3.

Prohibition on Unreasonable Regulation of Solar Arrays

Nevada’s Planning and Zoning Act provides, “A governing body shall not adopt an ordinance, regulation or plan or take any other action that prohibits or unreasonably restricts or has the effect of prohibiting or unreasonably restricting the owner of real property from using a system for obtaining solar energy on his or her property.” NV Rev. Stat § 278.0208 (2019).

Application for Special Rate Eligibility

While this section addresses permitting processes for the siting of proposed solar arrays, developers may need to apply to take advantage of special rates established by the state for the purchase of solar energy. A developer’s eligibility for compensation through a state’s net metering program, feed-in tariff, or other procurement program depends on the criteria and application process required by state laws establishing these rates.

The application process for a given rate may be consolidated with the land use and siting process under the authority of a state public utility commission or may be a set of separate and additional criteria a proposed solar array must meet. See “Compensation for Solar Energy” for additional discussion of siting criteria found in special rates for renewable energy.

Additional References
  1. Emily Hammond, The Energy in-Betweens, 59 Jurimetrics J. 167, 175–76 (2019).
  2. Solar facilities proposed for construction on federal land fall within the jurisdiction of the agency charged with the land’s management, most often the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management (“BLM”) or the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service. Projects under Federal jurisdiction are outside the scope of this report.
  3. Federal Regulatory Energy Commission, About FERC, What FERC Does Not Do, Updated August 14, 2018 available at http://www.ferc.gov/about/ferc-does.asp. FERC describes the limit of its own jurisdictional authority, leaving the local distribution of electricity and facility approvals as a responsibility reserved for the State Public Utility Commissions.
  4. Amy Wilson Morris & Jessica Owley, Mitigating the Impacts of the Renewable Energy Gold Rush, 15 Minn. J.L. Sci. & Tech. 293, 312 (2014).
  5. Monast and Adair, A triple Bottom Line for Electric Utility Regulation: Aligning State-Level Energy, Environmental, and Consumer Protection Goals, 38 Colum. Envtl. L. 1, 11 (2013).
  6. Siting approval for power generation, transmission and distribution lines, 2 L. of Indep. Power § 10:170, 2020.

How do Solar Development Permitting Processes affect Farmland?

Land use and energy permitting laws can easily affect the rate, extent, and location of solar development on agricultural land, either intentionally or unintentionally.

Every kilowatt of solar capacity installed on a roof, existing structure, or next to an associated electric load takes some development pressure off of agricultural land. Incentives can be built into state land use and energy permitting laws for residential and small-scale solar installations, those installed on roofs or other structures, and other solar arrays that are clearly in the public interest. Similarly, additional oversight and criteria can be applied to larger scale projects and those located on agricultural land.

Regulatory Incentives

First, the way administrative and regulatory processes are set up and implemented can incentivize certain types of development. State permitting policies can be complicated, expensive, and time-consuming, so easier pathways to project approval can act as a regulatory incentive for project development.

Regulatory incentives for certain types of solar energy may be explicit, like a tax credit or rebate offered to developers. Other regulatory incentives are implicit, or even accidental, when they stem from the administrative process itself.

Failing to make regulatory distinctions between sizes or types of solar development projects may allow utility-scale projects to be approved at the same regulatory and permitting cost as much smaller arrays or to be sited on prime farmland without evaluating impacts to agriculture.

When permitting fees, approval processes, and evidentiary requirements are the same for small and large projects, developers may be likely to pursue larger projects that offer additional income and lower installation costs per kilowatt.

Policymakers can improve permitting processes by establishing “fast track” and other graduated permitting processes that incentivize preferred projects and projects that are clearly in the public interest. Fast track and other streamlined permitting processes for renewable energy can also help to relieve the administrative burden on regulators. At the same time, requiring enhanced review of large-scale projects or those located on agricultural land can provide a disincentive for pursuing that project type, and ensures that project impacts are adequately considered.

Soft Costs

Cost is often the most significant factor for any individual solar development project, including farmland solar. While the hardware and materials costs of solar installation have decreased more than 60% since 2010, the “soft costs” of project approval remain a deterrent to solar development, often totaling up to 64% of total project costs.

Because solar arrays, and other distributed sources of renewable energy, are usually smaller than conventional power plants and may present novel siting decisions, “the transaction costs of renewable energy projects—including resource assessment, siting, permitting, planning, developing project proposals, assembling financing packages, and negotiating power-purchase contracts with utilities—may be much larger on a per-kilowatt (kW) capacity basis than for conventional power plants.”

— Fred Beck & Eric Martinot, Renewable Energy Policies and Barriers,  Science, Academic Press/Elsevier (2004).

On the other hand, streamlined permitting processes can reduce costs and facilitate smart farmland solar development by limiting the total number of approvals required, reducing criteria for smaller projects, establishing deadlines for permit review, ensuring the evaluation of farmland impacts, and creating different pathways to approval for projects that differ in size and scope.

Overly Permissive or Restrictive Definitions

Policymakers should be careful of overly permissive or restrictive regulatory categories in the solar permitting process, as discussed in more detail in Section I of this report. For example, the existing solar siting review process may not consider whether a proposed location is valuable farmland versus marginal farmland, or may not consider whether a solar array will replace actual agricultural use, even when the proposed location is not identified as farmland.

Project Oversight and Conditions on Development

Depending on whether a solar array proposed for farmland is governed by a state or local siting review process, the agencies providing project review and oversight are likely to change. Some states require the permitting authority to evaluate and/or place conditions on solar development proposed for agricultural land. Review criteria and conditions on project development can be established both for a state-level siting board and state-wide, where local processes apply, through a state law requiring localities to implement certain criteria or conditions within the local permitting process.

Need for Predictable Standards

Criteria for permit approval may be vague or subjective, leading to project development uncertainty, delay, and additional cost. Policy makers seeking to change the permitting process for solar development should strive to require “enough information to make rational decisions based on neutral and predictable standards,” including standards for farmland solar development, “while not being faced with ill-defined restrictions, such as preserving the “neighborhood character.”

Review criteria and conditions on project development should be clear and objectively measurable, and should not represent unreasonable barriers to beneficial projects, such as solar arrays designed to serve a farm’s electric load.

Additional References
  1. Tawny L. Alvarez, Don’t Take My Sunshine Away: Right-to-Light and Solar Energy in the Twenty-First Century, 28 Pace L. Rev. 535, 536 (2008).
  2. U.S. Department of Energy, Soft Costs 101: The Key to Achieving Cheaper Solar Energy, Feb. 25, 2016 (https://www.energy.gov/eere/articles/soft-costs-101-key-achieving-cheaper-solar-energy).
  3. Solar Energy Industries Association, Solar Soft Costs, June 2019 (https://www.seia.org/sites/default/files/2019-07/Solar-Soft-Costs-Factsheet.pdf).
  4. Megan Cleveland, National Conference of State Legislature, Tackling Solar Energy’s ‘Soft Costs,’ July 2017 (http://www.ncsl.org/research/energy/tackling-solar-energy-s-soft-costs.aspx).
  5. Fred Beck & Eric Martinot, Renewable Energy Policies and Barriers,  Academic Press/Elsevier Science, 2004, at 4 (http://biblioteca.cejamericas.org/bitstream/handle/2015/3308/Renewable_Energy_Policies_and_Barriers.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y)
  6. Anastasia Boden, et al., The Land Use Labyrinth: Problems of Land Use Regulation and the Permitting Process, released by the Regulatory Transparency Project of the Federalist Society, January 8, 2020, at 38 (https://regproject.org/paper/the-land-use-labyrinth-problems-of-land-use-regulation-and-the-permitting-process/).

Smart Farmland Solar Policy Options

→ Create a role for the state agency of agriculture in evaluating and conditioning solar projects located on agricultural land.

Successfully protecting farmland and promoting agricultural use within solar development policies requires knowledge of state agricultural land characteristics and familiarity with agricultural soils and impact mitigation strategies. States can take advantage of the expertise of agencies of agriculture in developing and implementing criteria for solar development on agricultural land, and in project review and approval. A variety of roles for the state agency of agriculture can be inserted into state siting and permitting processes:

  • Agency receives notice of projects.
  • Agency reviews project applications, evaluates impacts, and suggests conditions.
  • Agency is a statutory party to public hearings.
  • Agency certification is required for project approval.

Compare: Role for the Agency of Agriculture 

The CT Department of Agriculture reviews solar arrays over 2 megawatts proposed for siting on farmland, and may consult with the USDA or soil and water conservation districts. The Department must represent in writing to the Connecticut Siting Council that projects will not affect the status of prime farmland. C.G.S.A § 16-50k(B)(iii) (2017). Smaller projects are not subject to the same oversight by the Department of Agriculture.

The MA Department of Agricultural Resources receives applications and certifies agricultural net-metering facilities and consults on “Agricultural Solar Tariff Generation Units” under the state’s SMART solar program. 225 C.M.R. 20.

The VT Agency of Agriculture, Food, and Markets receives notice of ground-mounted solar projects 50 kilowatts or larger on agricultural soils. It may appear at Public Utilities Commission hearings for projects between 15-500 kilowatts, and must appear for systems greater than 500 kilowatts in capacity. 32 V.S.A § 248 (2019); PUC Rule 5.100.

→ Require the permitting authority to consider impacts to prime agricultural land and soils, and establish performance standards for arrays located on agricultural land.

State and local energy siting authorities can adopt specific criteria for reviewing and permitting solar projects proposed for installation on agricultural land. The permitting authority can require the applicant to submit information about potential impacts to farmland and agricultural uses and can develop specific criteria or performance standards that solar arrays must meet. The permitting authority can also require third-party certification of impacts to farmland or compliance with farmland protection criteria. States integrate farmland protection criteria into permitting review processes in a variety of ways:

  • Applicant submits information concerning impacts to agricultural land and uses.
  • Permitting authority considers impacts to agricultural land as a criteria for permit issuance.
  • Agency of agriculture certifies that projects will not “materially affect” farmland.
  • Solar arrays sited on agricultural land must comply with specific performance standards.
  • Professional engineer certifies that projects on agricultural land comply with specific performance standards.

Compare: Permitting Criteria for Farmland Protection

Solar arrays greater than 250 kilowatts and located on prime farmland are only allowed by special exception and permit from the Land Use Planning Commission. Land Use Districts and Standards; 12 M.R.S.A § 685-A(10).

All ground-mounted Solar arrays greater than 500 kilowatts must provide a certification from a professional engineer that the construction complied with specific standards when installed on Land in Agricultural Use, Prime Agricultural Farmland, or other pervious open space. 225 C.M.R 20.05.

The Public Utilities Commission must consider impacts to prime agricultural soils, as defined in 10 V.S.A. § 6001, for all ground-mounted solar projects over 15 kilowatts. 30 V.S.A. § 248(b)(5) (2019).

Solar on high-value farmland shall not use more than 12 acres unless the “county adopts & applicant satisfies land use provisions authorizing projects subject to a dual-use development plan.”  O.A.R. 660-033-0130(38)(g) (2016).

→ Require decommissioning plans and/or bonds for solar arrays on farmland.

Solar arrays are usually coupled with long-term contracts for the purchase of the solar energy for periods of ten to twenty-five years. Decommissioning requirements are used to ensure that the solar array infrastructure is removed from the land at the end of the energy contract, or other set time period, and that the underlying land can be returned to agricultural use. States integrate decommissioning requirements into site review processes in a variety of ways:

  • The applicant must include or describe a decommissioning plan in a permit application.
  • The applicant must show by “substantial evidence” that all materials will be removed upon decommissioning and soils will be capable of active agricultural production.
  • The applicant must identify funds earmarked for decommissioning or post a bond to ensure decommissioning is carried out at the end of the project’s life.

Compare: Decommissioning Requirements for Farmland Solar Arrays

For solar arrays greater than 250 kW on prime farmland, the applicant must show by substantial evidence that all structures and materials will be removed upon decommissioning, and soils will be capable of active agricultural production.

Land Use Districts and Standards;12 M.R.S.A § 685-A(10) 

Non-utility-owned generation facilities with a plant capacity equal to or greater than 150 kW and less than or equal to 500 kW must be removed once they are no longer in service, with the site restored to its condition prior to installation of the facility to the greatest extent practicable. Larger solar arrays, and those not owned by a utility, must also provide cost estimates for decommissioning and evidence of sufficient funds. The PUC incorporates this requirement as a condition of Certificates of Public Good issued pursuant to Section 248, as applicable. 32 VSA § 248 (2019); PUC Rule 5.900

→ Provide statutory protection for the status of underlying agricultural land when used for solar development.

Contracts for solar energy compensation are often designed to last ten to twenty-five years. While land may be clearly zoned or otherwise protected as farmland at the time solar arrays are installed, there are few guarantees that farmland will remain zoned or protected as farmland after solar array decommissioning. State laws can clarify the status of underlying land, protecting agricultural land regardless of its use as a site for energy generation. States can:

  • Prevent subsequent redistricting of land when redistricted for energy development.
  • Protect farmland classifications regardless of the use of farmland for energy generation.

For example, Vermont’s siting review process protects the classification of farmland regardless of its use for energy, and the language of this requirement is included in relevant Certificates of Public Good:

“Notwithstanding any contrary provision of law, primary agricultural soils as defined in 10 V.S.A. § 6001 located on the site of a solar electric generation facility approved under this section shall remain classified as such soils, and the review of any change in the use of the site subsequent to the construction of the facility shall treat the soils as if the facility had never been constructed.” 32 V.S.A. § 248(t) (2019).

→ Establish approval processes based on solar array size, location, and design with expedited permitting for small or structure-mounted projects and increased oversight of larger-scale arrays.

Policymakers should attempt to eliminate unnecessary or redundant reviews and inspections, reduce wait times and permit fees, and establish escalating levels of review based on project characteristics like solar array size, design, and location. States can take the lead in streamlining permitting processes and should develop standard technical and procedural requirements with checklists for permit applications and clear guidelines for permit review and approval. For example, states can:

  • Develop a simple application form and approval process for small and structure-mounted solar arrays.
  • Reduce or cap application fees for small and structure-mounted arrays, and increase permit fees according to the administrative burden associated with permit review.
  • Develop expedited review processes with reduced criteria and evidentiary requirements for small and structure-mounted solar arrays.
  • Create a state-wide solar permit for implementation by municipal siting authorities.
  • Subject large solar arrays to additional oversight and permit review criteria.

Compare: Expedited and Streamlined Solar Permitting Processes

Reduced Application Fees

Colorado’s Fair Permit Act caps fees for residential solar permits at $500 and fees for commercial solar permits at $1000.C.R.S.A. § 30-28-113 (2017).

Expedited Process for Small and Roof-mounted Arrays

Vermont’s Certificate of Public Good (CPG) process offers a ten-day fast-track registration form, including interconnection, for ground-mounted systems up to 15 kilowatts and roof-mounted systems up to 500 kilowatts. Rule 5.105. An expedited application process is available for ground-mounted systems between 15 and 50 kilowatts. Rule 5.106. Expedited projects are subject to fewer criteria in permit review.  The CPG consolidates siting and environmental review into a single permit approval.

Statewide Standards for Municipal Implementation

California’s solar Permitting Efficiency Act of 2014 required all city and county governments to adopt an ordinance creating an expedited, streamlined permitting process for small residential rooftop solar arrays less than 10 kilowatts in capacity, and must provide a simple checklist for the permit process. Cities and counties must conform their permitting processes to the recommendations in the California Solar Permitting Guidebook. CA Pub. Res. Code § 65850.5.

Streamlined Oversight of Large-scale Arrays

New York’s Article 10 provides for the siting review and issuance of a certificate of environmental compatibility and public need for new, repowered or modified major electric generating facilities with a nameplate capacity of 25 megawatts or more by the NY Board on Electric Generation Siting and the Environment in a unified proceeding instead of requiring a developer to apply for numerous state and local permits. The authority of other state agencies and municipalities is expressly preempted in Art. 10, §172. NY Pub. Serv. Art. 10 (2011).

→ Establish Special Review Process for Agrivoltaics

Agrivoltaic or dual-use solar arrays are designe d to complement agricultural uses and present a special opportunity to develop smart farmland solar energy. Policymakers should ensure that permitting authorities include regulators with expertise about the integration of solar development with agricultural uses and should collaborative with agencies and entities that already preside over agricultural land management. Permitting authorities can create a specialized review and approval process for agrivoltaic solar arrays, as they do not present the same threat of land use conversion as traditional solar development and are instead likely to improve farm viability.

For example, Massachusetts defined a category for agrivoltaic solar arrays within its SMART Program, and developed a pre-application and application process that involves the University of Massachusetts Clean Energy Extension alongside the Department of Energy Resources. Projects seeking the Agricultural Solar Tariff Generation Unit (ASTGU) Adder must apply for a predetermination letter in consultation with Agricultural Extension staff.[1] Once the application is sent to the Department of Energy Resources, it is reviewed in consultation with the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources. 225 C.M.R. 20; Solar Massachusetts Renewable Target Smart Program information.

→ Consider Digital Tools to Improve Permitting Efficiency

States are beginning to use web-based tools to simplify and improve the solar permitting process. Any and all required forms and applications for solar development should be available for public download and review. State and local permitting authorities should be encouraged or required to create simple regulatory guides that describe the process and requirements applied to different solar installations, including those located on agricultural land.

GIS Mapping

Some states are working to map land use considerations using GIS technology that allows the layering of detailed information about every land parcel. Mapped characteristics might include the location of energy transmission and distribution infrastructure, electric substations, prime agricultural soils, farmland, wetlands, endangered species habitat, and other protected lands and natural resources. Detailed mapping helps to identify beneficial locations for solar development, as well as potential siting conflicts. Policymakers should encourage or require the development of GIS mapping tools to help protect agricultural lands and other natural resources.

For example, the Vermont Community Energy Dashboard identifies the location and characteristics of all existing distributed energy generators in the state. It also offers a mapping tool that can be used to evaluate potential sites for a wide variety of characteristics, including the presence of agricultural land or soils, grid connections, and other natural resources that might constrain project development.

In addition, the EPA’s RE-Powering America’s Land website offers a range of digital tools, including decision trees for screening sites for solar potential, and interactive mapping tools, including details about grid connectivity.

Online Permitting

While online permitting is not widely available at either the state or local level, it presents an opportunity to expedite small or residential solar arrays, and could facilitate a wide variety of permitting processes. The availability of online permitting can incentivize projects that are in the public interest and free up regulatory oversight for larger projects and those that may negatively impact agricultural land and natural resources.

For example, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory is collaborating with lawmakers and solar developers to develop an instant online solar permitting platform for residential systems. The “SolarAPP” or “Solar Automated Permitting Process” is intended to help standardize instant permitting processes and help permitting authorities evaluate proposed solar arrays for safety and code compliance.