City-owned properties such as large open fields, brownfields, wastewater treatment plants, landfills, parking lots, and large rooftops could be suitable for community solar development. Two options for identifying possible sites for solar are (1) hire a contractor to perform the site screening, or (2) have city staff perform the site screening. The benefits of having an experienced developer bring land to the project include lowering city staff time, attracting more developers, and the potential for decreased project complexity. However, a developer bringing land may increase the overall project cost.
On the other hand, hosting a project on your own land allows the city to have more control throughout the project and can provide revenue to the city. The city may be able to utilize compromised lands (e.g., brownfields and landfills) or leverage other city resources such as vacant land, wastewater treatment plants, parking lots, and large rooftops.
Barriers to using government land include permit management, incurring the costs of finding suitable land, and ensuring benefits flow to the local community. In some cities, there are regulations that prohibit solar from being developed on agricultural land. Therefore, it is a good idea to consider multiple uses of the land such as providing pollinator habitat, which could allow the land to maintain its agricultural classification (for example, read about Solarama Crush’s beer created from pollinator-friendly solar panels.
A number of tools and resources can help you understand the solar potential of a particular site:
- You can estimate solar potential by using tools such as Google’s Project Sunroof or NREL’s PVWatts.
- Compare sites for potential and suitability.
Take a look at case studies of various site types:
- Brownfields: Brownfields provide a great opportunity to develop community solar projects. A Utility Dive brief provides a great overview of New York’s new toolkit to drive solar on brownfields.
- Wastewater treatment facilities: Water treatment plants account for 4% of total US energy consumption, which provides a significant opportunity for solar offsets on-site. The Pennsylvania State University provides a case study of a successful wastewater treatment plant project in the article UAJA 2.6 MW Solar Facility.
- Landfills: Landfills provide an opportunity for community solar development because of underutilization of land. Solar Industry Magazine highlights a landfill project in the article New Landfill Community Project A Big Hit In Raynham, MA. The Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) RE-Powering America’s Land contains tools and resources on mapping and screening renewable energy on potentially contaminated lands, landfills, and mine sites.
- Parking lots: Parking canopy solar costs have declined drastically in recent years and can be a great option for siting community solar. See this list of resources and articles on solar parking canopies: https://www.communitysolarvalueproject.com/uploads/2/7/0/3/27034867/20170913_5_final_solar_carport_links.pdf.
- Large rooftops: If land availability is constrained, cities may want to look into large rooftops for community solar development. See some examples of community solar on rooftops in New York: https://ny.curbed.com/2019/4/26/18513798/solar-power-green-new-deal-governor-cuomo.
After conducting this initial site screening, you should have a list of 1–10 potential sites for a community solar project.