When selecting a site, you should go through the following actions:
Understand regulations for community solar siting
Many community solar programs have regulations on the maximum size and location of community solar projects. Therefore, it is important to research and understand these regulatory constraints.
These sites may contain useful policy information:
Screen city properties for potential solar development and weigh the costs and benefits of using a municipal property to site your community solar project
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:
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. 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.
Consider working with a solar siting consultant to ensure site suitability
If your city does not have internal solar site assessment experience or capacity, it may be useful to engage with a professional to assist in initial site screening and/or a final site(s) assessment(s)s (try searching the SEIA Member Directory). Working with a consultant may be particularly useful in the case of contaminated lands, where a professional site assessment can reveal site conditions that may increase installation costs.
Assess the value of candidate sites and consider issuing a RFI or RFP to understand lease and/or project pricing for your city-owned site(s)
Once you have identified potential sites for solar, you will want to assess and compare the value of developing on these sites. One way to do this assessment is to release an RFI or RFP to collect initial pricing estimates from developers for each site. In general, sites that are larger, less complex, and have fewer regulatory barriers may be more economical for community solar. However, it is also important to consider factors such as visibility and alternative uses when comparing your top candidate sites. For example, a highly visible capped landfill that cannot be repurposed for other uses may still be a good option for solar, despite the increased complexity of building on contaminated lands.
As a host of the project, you can distribute an RFI or RFP to identify interested solar developers and obtain pricing estimates for your sites. The steps laid out below demonstrate how you might execute this process:
- Develop a land/site lease agreement. You can read the Guidelines to Community Solar Garden Leases provided by the University of Minnesota Law School (and potentially edit the land lease to meet your needs). Review this agreement with a lawyer.
The most frequently used mechanism for community solar is a lease, but a license or an easement are also options. Local or state laws may dictate which options are feasible as well as certain required terms of the contract. For more details on types of contracts for site development, see Section 3.2 of the IREC Solar Power Purchase Agreements report.
- Write an RFP and bid sheet that asks for land/site bids and feedback on the land/site lease agreement. Review other cities’ RFPs for inspiration—annotated city RFPs are coming soon to https://cityrenewables.org. Include the land lease agreement in the RFP package so developers can provide initial commentary on it. See NYSERDAs RFP land lease template.
- Distribute the RFP and explain the evaluation process to developers. This maximizes your chances of receiving high-quality bids. State solar or renewable energy industry association such as SEIA maintain lists of developers and solar professionals at https://www.seia.org/national-solar-database.
- Evaluate and select winning bids. Bids should be evaluated on price, ability to deliver, responses to the agreement, and quality. Enlist in a consultant to help you compare bids.
Screen for interconnection
Interconnection screening determines whether the grid in a given area will be able to accommodate a community solar project with little to no upgrade costs. “Hosting capacity” is the term used to refer to the amount of generation that can be accommodated at a given point on the distribution system without requiring significant grid upgrades. You will need to work with your local utility or a consultant to understand the interconnection costs at the sites you are considering. Eventually, you will execute an interconnection agreement, but you should first check to see if your local utility has an online hosting capacity map and view the hosting capacity of the power lines nearest to the sites you are considering.
You can then reach out to an interconnection specialist to carry out an interconnection screening (try searching the SEIA Member Directory). Also read about executing an interconnection agreement once you determine there is capacity for the community solar project.
Help facilitate permitting and zoning processes
Once a site has been identified, you should consider how you can serve as a liaison to various city departments to help streamline permitting and resolve any questions with respect to zoning. You could also consider working with the local planning department to rezone areas for solar development. You can learn about best practices for solar zoning from the American Planning Association and NREL.