By Judith Wallace, American City & County
Building permits and site plan approval. Zoning codes should specify whether building permits or site plan approval is required for rooftop and ground-mounted projects. Ithaca specifies that building permits are required for solar collectors, and that site plan approval or modification is required only if generally applicable conditions are met. In contrast, Massena requires site plan approval for any solar energy accessory structures in residential districts.
Expedited permitting review. Solar energy installation safety issues, such as loading, wind shear and fire safety, are evaluated when either the building or electrical system are permitted and inspected. There are several models for standardized and expedited review of small residential projects such as those from the Solar America Board for Codes and Standards. Clarification of building and electrical permit application requirements and streamlining departmental reviews for larger solar projects will reduce costs and allow developers to anticipate project time lines more effectively.
Building codes. Green building codes also can ease the way for solar power. In February 2010, a New York City task force issued a comprehensive set of recommendations for a green building code. The report suggested detailed criteria for attaching solar panels to buildings; inclusion of solar power in an exemption allowing mechanical equipment on roofs and permitting solar panels to be visible from the street in historic districts without review by the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission.
Steps Locals Can Take as Property Owners
Cities and counties also can promote their own sites to private developers of solar energy projects. Landfills, buildings and parking lots provide open, flat spaces that can be well-suited for solar projects.
By leasing government property to a third-party developer, local governments that do not have the expertise to select appropriate sites, types of panels, and combination of financial incentives can gain experience with solar power, and raise the profile of solar power in their communities, without taking on significant expense and risk.
Landfills, in particular, are well suited to solar power generation and are a good use for contaminated and otherwise unproductive sites. Landfills generating methane extracted for power generation will have grid interconnections, and solar modules can have footings that do not pierce the landfill cap.
Solar sites require flat, open spaces to accommodate rows of rigid solar modules arranged on footings or racks. An ideal landfill site is closed and capped, with large, flat, unshaded areas, older and settled contents depleted of methane, transmission and grid interconnection access and no major outstanding enforcement or contamination issues.
A city or county closing a landfill can avoid having to revisit the cap design, remediation plan, final determination, closure conditions and financial assurances that would be required for a solar project by coordinating with state regulators with jurisdiction over the closure plans to include provisions for future solar or renewable energy. In states where environmental review is required for approvals of public and private projects, local governments also should encourage state environmental protection agencies to consider a comprehensive programmatic review of solar development on landfills, as the federal government has done for western federal lands, or prepare an inventory of state-tracked sites to be incorporated in or supplement databases of federal lands and federally tracked sites suitable for renewable energy development.
The number of landfill-based solar projects is growing. The New Jersey Meadowlands Commission is spending $8.5 million in federal stimulus funds to build a 5-megawatt solar landfill project. Florida Power and Light created a 250-kilowatt solar panel array and public park on a closed site in eastern Sarasota County. Other ground-mounted solar projects on contaminated lands and landfills have been installed in Brockton, Mass., and Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada. Developers also have announced plans for similar projects in North Carolina and in Bucks County, Pa.
Smaller But Viable Sites
Some local government buildings and parking lots can be large enough to make solar projects economically viable. They should have interconnection and transmission access, and should not raise concerns about contamination or how they affect historic, scenic or cultural resources. As a result, the site owner and developer will not need to agree on complicated insurance or liability issues, and environmental review can be fairly simple.
In December, the Long Island (N.Y.) Power Authority agreed to purchase power from Escondido, Calif.-based enXco, which will install carport-mounted solar panels at Suffolk County-owned parking lots, including three Long Island Railroad train stations. A similar California program was approved in January for purchasing 50 megawatts of solar power generated mainly on commercial building rooftops by Southern California Edison.
Creating an inventory of potential sites can be a part of or a precursor to a broader sustainability plan, such as the one found in El Paso, Texas, or in New York City (PlaNYC). Several states, including Massachusetts and Wisconsin, handle the planning for a group of local governments. (For information on creating a comprehensive sustainability plan, visit the Department of Energy’s Technical Assistance Program series for a recent Webcast on the topic at http://apps1.eere.energy.gov/wip/tap_webinar_20100127.cfm).
There are important steps that local governments can take to position their cities, towns and villages to take advantage of the financial incentives for solar energy development. By clarifying their land use requirements and identifying suitable sites, local governments can promote solar projects and help meet their renewable energy goals
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