Solar permitting reform at a turning point


Nine months after the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) turbo-charged U.S. renewables, executives at installers continue to argue the government has put the cart before the horse.

The incentives to drive hundreds of gigawatts of renewable energy generation capacity nationwide remain hampered by cumbersome, lengthy permitting processes. Environmental permitting and community engagement still prove tricky, say industry insiders, as developers bid to scale 50 MW projects to 500 MW.

Groups ranging from the White House to rural electric cooperatives are lobbying the Senate and Congress to streamline permitting for big solar and electricity transmission infrastructure.

The concerns regarding permitting and approvals were echoed by Sarah Ladislaw, senior director for climate and energy at the U.S. National Security Council, speaking at the 2023 BloombergNEF Summit held in New York in April. She noted up to 75% of new renewables projects entering permitting don’t reach the interconnection queue due to antiquated, overlapping permissions processes.

On May 10, the White House submitted a memorandum calling on Congress to pass comprehensive federal permitting legislation, backing up the IRA’s $369 billion of clean power spending with a move that will, however, also speed fossil fuel plant permitting.

The memorandum calls for community engagement in project siting, removing redundancy and duplication in environmental permitting, and reforming the interconnection process which can leave facilities waiting four years or more for a grid connection.

Carol Ho, an environmental engineer at Denver-based technical adviser E3 Consulting, says the memorandum proposes increasing the permitting workforce to reduce waiting time and would also include data compilation measures to speed permitting across similar asset classes.

“I think many agency personnel would say that they have been trying to implement these types of measures for a long time, and have been successful to an extent but require more staff and funding,” she says.

The White House move followed an open letter to Senate leaders Charles Schumer and Mitch McConnell calling on the upper house to conduct hearings and draft legislation to modernize federal US infrastructure permitting. The call was made by the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA), a collective of more than 900 rural electric providers.

Impact statements

The lobbyists are targeting the framework of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) which implements environmental impact statement (EIS) for large power transmission and generation projects.

A 500 MW solar project on federal land or an interstate high voltage, direct current power line typically requires four and a half years to obtain an EIS and a quarter of such projects need six years.

Not all solar projects require a federal EIS but E3’s Ho says state and local permitting is equally drawn out. Six months can be needed to get agency responses and arrange biologist, archaeologist, and conservation site visits to check for rare bat species, bird migration routes, wetlands reviews, consider historical site preservation concerns, and compile vegetation management studies, says Ho. That means the resulting back and forth can take 12 months to 18 months for a multi-thousand acre site, she adds.

Most eastern seaboard regions require a mandatory year to secure wetland permits at a state level, Ho says, stretching permitting to two years-plus before federal and municipal requirements.

“It’s because utility scale solar development is a new technology and this (NEPA) is an existing law that’s been around since the 1970s,” explains the environmental engineer. “These laws weren’t written when 50 MW wind turbines or solar farms were being sited. E3 has not seen any type of permitting reform that could expedite these steps.”

Cities and counties are responding, Ho says, with local authorities updating urban-planning zoning maps and community development plans to identify where solar infrastructure would be permissible.

Streamlining efforts

In 2020, then-Governor Andrew Cuomo streamlined permitting for renewables projects in New York state with a generation capacity of at least 25 MW. The Accelerated Renewable Energy Growth and Community Benefit Act provided a single forum – run by the Office of Renewable Energy Siting – for early-stage community engagement; state and municipal consultation; application reviews; draft permitting; and hearings, decisions, and compliance.

Hecate Energy – with its 3,000-acre, 500 MW Cider Solar farm in the towns of Elba and Oakfield – in June 2022 became the first applicant to benefit from the process. The application was filed in May 2021 with the 13-month permitting process dubbed “light speed” by Hecate Senior VP of Environmental and Permitting, Diane Sullivan. Just over 12 months was needed to get from permitting to the interconnection stage, even if Sullivan pointed out the process remains challenging and costly in New York.

Hecate engaged early on with community members in the two towns in the west of the state, Sullivan said, something developers can be prone to overlook. From day one, the developer had open dialogue with town supervisors and held open house events and one-on-one meetings with officials to address concerns such as visual impact and potential “change in community character.”

Developers can pay $250,000 in annual fees for “critical issues analysis” environmental reports for projects that never take shape, according to Robin Laine, co-founder and CEO of environmental permitting data software specialist Transect. Hecate’s Sullivan says community engagement is a small price to pay for the success of big projects in states that are “open for business” for solar.

Community approval

Convincing a myriad of state and town residents that a multi-hundred-megawatt capacity solar project is right for their town or county is no small feat. Across many farming communities, residents see solar projects as industrial-scale intrusions that could shake up community character, chiefly around agriculture land use, Sullivan adds.

Solar continues to be a tough sell to farmers. Sullivan says the incentive available from co-locating utility scale solar on land shared with a farmer presents a 30-year shared revenue source with the landowner. Not including the rise in agrivoltaics or shared farming-plus-solar generation techniques, Sullivan presents the opportunity of returning the land to the farm owner in better condition than when the project was installed, which is a driver to successfully winning over rural stakeholders in the permitting and early stages of project development.

The software developed by Transect removes most of the “what-if” variables at the environmental permitting stage which could preclude a solar company from proceeding to site development, according chief executive Laine. “The folks we see interacting most with communities are our community and utility solar partners,” she says. “Once the developer has chosen a site and gets to land permitting, our package covers all the grounds for moving forward to interconnection. It’s about open communication and candor with the community.”

Transect’s automated environmental reports and early-stage solutions can save developers up to 18 months of the permitting process cycle, Laine says, enabling developers to stick with project sites because the multitude of permitting boxes have already been checked.

A former environmental consultant, Laine said one wish-list item would be to have a “low-impact” designated region, or map system, for renewable projects and their supporting infrastructure, highlighting areas of lower permitting friction, with programmatic NEPA reviews. This would put the onus on the federal NEPA framework as well as the Bureau of Land Management and other federal land agencies to identify areas where they would prefer to develop renewables projects and essentially “pre-permit” facilities in those areas.

A process like that could fast-track renewables in a proactive way by focusing proposed development in areas with the least environmental and permitting friction, Laine adds.

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