Part 2: Preparing Your Community for Distributed Solar
What is Distributed Solar?
In traditional power generation models, energy is created at large, central power stations—coal plants, nuclear plants, solar farms, wind farms, hydroelectric plants, and more—and transmitted across long distances via transmission lines.
Traditional Power Generation, aka Central Power Generation Model
Distributed energy, also referred to as local energy, relies on smaller, distributed facilities that generate power closer to the homes and communities where it’s used. In this scenario, municipal entities need to plan for solar energy and renewable developments entering the landscape within their jurisdictions.
Distributed Power Generation Model
In part one of this two-part distributed solar series, we talked about the economic and environmental benefits of distributed solar photovoltaics (PV). In addition to the benefits listed, studies indicate that building more distributed solar and energy storage resources in combination with large-scale renewable projects is more affordable for society as a whole and makes for a more resilient power grid.
Despite the benefits, municipalities and local governments are often unprepared to move distributed solar projects through the approval and development process in an effective manner. In fact, according to a 2019 study of solar ordinances in Michigan, fewer than 20% of Michigan communities have zoning regulations in place to address all scales of solar energy system implementations. The lack of solar ordinances often leads to “special-use authorizations,” a less-than-ideal approval process. Not to mention, outdated local laws stifle innovation and competition in the energy sector and restrict property owners from installing renewable energy to save money and move towards greater sustainability.
As demand grows for distributed solar, communities need to have planning and zoning in place that aligns community goals, business goals, resident needs, and public safety standards regarding clean energy and resiliency.
Understanding Local Solar Applications
Before jumping into planning, zoning, and ordinance development, it’s essential to understand the different distributed solar applications so your community can assess their potential “fit” into the local landscape.
Residential solar projects are the smallest in size, ranging from 6 to 24 panels to generate 2.5-10 kilowatts (kW) of power. The panels are usually mounted on the homeowner’s roof or the roof of another structure on the property, such as a detached garage, carport, or shed but can also be mounted in the yard via a “ground-mount array.” When power is generated “behind the meter” that exceeds the homeowner’s needs, the excess electricity is stored in a battery (if installed by the homeowner) or sold back to the utility operator.
Commercial and Industrial (C&I) Solar
C&I refers to ground-mounted, roof-top, or building-integrated PV designed and installed for non-residential customers, including commercial businesses, industrial companies, academic institutions, government entities, hospitals, non-profits, and public entities. C&I solar power generation reduces or completely offsets annual electricity costs for the facility. Amazon, Target, and institutions like Michigan State University are leaders in C&I solar energy deployment.
The Solar Energy Industrial Association (SEIA) defines community solar as a “project with multiple subscribers that receive credits on their utility bill for their portion of the energy produced by the community solar system. It allows individuals, businesses, and other organizations to participate in solar development and receive direct benefits, similar to on-site solar installations.”
Developed by utilities or private/public developers, community solar projects are like small utility-scale projects that serve a specific geographic area with the generated power sold in a unique business model. These projects are typically larger in size, require more land, and use ground-mounted arrays to produce 0.5-20 MW of power.
Community solar is a solution for energy users who want to obtain power from renewable energy sources but can’t install a solar array on their house or business due to property ownership or limited sun exposure, for example. These projects are also attractive for low to moderate-income communities, both urban and rural, to help offset utility rates for residents.
As the most complex type of distributed solar project, community solar is enabled by legislation in over a dozen states, but each state program is unique.
Co-locating solar arrays on existing or potential farmland, known as agrivoltaics, allows farmers to reap the benefits of renewable energy while repurposing the land under and between the panels for agricultural use. Depending on the site and the conditions, agrivoltaic projects suit high-value, hand-picked crops, pollinator plantings, and sheep grazing opportunities. Agrivoltaic initiatives allow fallow soils to rest and regain nutrients and enable the site to return to farmland when appropriate. Ground-screw and ballasted installations are often used in agrivoltaic projects to avoid more permanent concrete foundations for the panel racking structures.
Master Planning, Zoning, and Ordinance Development
Your community must define how to approach each of these unique distributed solar projects by first determining your community’s renewable energy goals – improved resiliency, climate action, economic development, and preserved farmland, for example. It’s essential to look at your existing project approval process and create standards for solar installations that benefit your community and maybe even incentivize developers.
Each municipality is unique, and tailoring the language in local zoning codes, building regulations, and permits to address solar is important to streamline the project approval process. As illustrated below, ensuring that new construction meets community needs and standards requires foundational documents and processes that address if, where, how, and how much distributed solar can be deployed on a site.
Project Approval Process
There are several ways to develop solar-supportive policy recommendations that clarify solar’s place in the community and allow for appropriate development, installation, maintenance, and decommissioning.
Master Planning & Zoning
A master plan sets the foundation for planning, zoning, and land use, all to achieve the community’s goals and vision. Based on this foundation, community leaders can determine how to move forward, taking solar and other renewable energy regulations into account. Community participation is another consideration, as local governments look to build consensus around innovations that bring change. A best practice is to plan first and zone second. The master plan is where your community evaluates the bigger picture with its development, including:
- Vision, goals, and objectives
- Brownfields or grayfields
- Future land-use map
- Zoning plan
- Co-location or dual-use criteria
- And more
Special Land Use Authorization
Residential, commercial, agricultural, and industrial zoning laws help dictate how land is developed. While some community ordinances identify solar as public infrastructure, others may group solar into a general category, leaving it largely undefined. Lack of clarity can leave your community at risk.
In contrast, establishing defined ordinances allows local planning commissions to regulate development and dictate how solar is deployed in their community. Setting parameters upfront can go a long way in solving future conflicts between neighbors, developers, and the local government.
Ordinances Pave the Way for Local Economic Growth, Increased Tax Revenue, and Energy Equality
With solar ordinances in place, communities can more quickly and efficiently attract and deploy distributed solar projects that result in new development, increased tax revenues, reduced energy burdens, greater economic development, and community resilience.
With expertise in renewable energy, land development, and municipal services, Metro Consulting Associates brings a unique perspective and skill set to local governments considering distributed solar solutions. Our team excels in community engagement with engineers, surveyors, GIS analysts, and more to help cities, townships, and other entities craft their solar planning, zoning, and ordinance documentation. Contact our team to get started.
About The Author
Eric Geerlings, PE