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Secrets of Environmental Permitting Solar Farms

Secrets of Environmental Permitting Solar Farms

By Ken MacDonald, Regional Director of Environmental Permitting and Compliance with UES

First, a secret is only a secret if one doesn’t know it. 

Spoiler alert: There are no real “secrets.” There are lessons learned, hints discovered, and tips earned through permitting and compliance for tens of thousands of acres of solar energy facilities.

Solar power has emerged as a frontrunner in the pursuit of sustainable energy. As governments and corporations worldwide are transitioning to renewable energy, the establishment of solar facilities is pivotal. However, between a proposal to harness the sun’s power and throwing the switch lies the complexity of environmental permitting. 

We’re going to unravel some intricacies of the process that’s designed to ensure the coexistence of solar energy development with responsible environmental preservation.

Understanding Environmental Permitting

Formally, environmental permitting is a multifaceted regulatory process designed to evaluate the potential environmental impacts of a project and design measures to mitigate or offset these effects. 

In simplest terms, to get environmental approvals, agency regulators need the answers to three questions: What resources are at the site? What are the potential effects? How do we mitigate those effects? 

Site Selection and Impact Assessment

The initial step in the solar environmental permitting journey involves meticulous site selection and impact assessment. Developers are served by selecting locations that balance optimal solar exposure, proximity to transmission, and minimal environmental impacts. Depending on the site, this process often commonly includes ecological surveys, soil assessments, cultural and historic resources evaluations, and endangered species. 

Other resources to be considered could include air quality, surface and groundwater, visual impacts, acoustics, recreation, prime and unique farmlands, Wild and Scenic Rivers, grazing, fire, and more.

This part of the process uses all the tools available, such as Geographic Information System (GIS) mapping, boots-on-the-ground specialists, and drones. It’s essential to report results and overlays of various data sets, including biodiversity hot spots and sensitive ecosystems, to facilitate informed decision-making in site selection.

Engaging With Stakeholders

Transparent communication with stakeholders is another crucial aspect of the environmental permitting process. Engaging with local communities, environmental groups, and regulatory agencies early ensures that concerns are addressed and considered throughout the development stages. 

Public hearings and consultations offer an opportunity for developers to showcase the project’s benefits and demonstrate their commitment to minimizing environmental effects.

An often overlooked secret is the incorporation of community feedback into the project design. This collaborative approach not only fosters a positive relationship between developers and local communities but also enhances the environmental sustainability of the solar facility.

Not a secret: It’s harder to build something when it comes to a community as a surprise. It’s better to save the surprises for birthdays and anniversaries.

Wildlife Protection Measures

Preserving biodiversity is a key consideration in solar facility environmental permitting. Special attention is given to protecting wildlife, particularly in regions with protected species. 

Implementing wildlife protection measures—designated buffer zones, weed management plans, and habitat restoration plans—is an important key to balancing energy needs with environmental conservation and obtaining federal, state, and local permits.

Water Conservation and Management

Water usage and conservation are integral components of solar facility environmental permitting. These projects often require substantial water resources for dust control during construction. 

Developers must adhere to strict stormwater management practices to prevent soil erosion and water pollution. Sediment control measures, permeable surfaces, and the use of native vegetation are among the secrets to ensuring that water resources remain protected during and after construction.

Land Use and Vegetation Management

Solar facilities occupy vast expanses of land, and their development can impact local ecosystems. A carefully crafted vegetation management plan is critical to mitigating these effects. This almost always includes strategies for preserving existing vegetation, restoring temporarily disturbed areas, and preventing weeds from getting established and outcompeting the native plants.

A solar facility is most commonly an array of solar panels that supplies electricity to the grid. These facilities are called solar farms, solar parks, solar gardens, solar power stations, or more formally, photovoltaic power stations. They range in size from a rooftop to thousands of acres.

The use of pollinator-friendly vegetation around solar arrays is another secret that contributes to environmental sustainability. By supporting local pollinators, such as bees and butterflies, solar facilities can speed up vegetation recovery, positively affect ecosystems, and promote biodiversity.

Erosion Control and Soil Conservation

Soil erosion is a common concern during construction and operations. To address this issue, developers incorporate erosion control measures as a secret to maintaining soil stability and preventing sediment runoff into nearby water bodies. 

Best management practices like silt fences, erosion control blankets, and revegetation efforts are commonly employed to minimize the environmental footprint.

Post-Construction Monitoring and Adaptive Management

The secrets of successful solar facility environmental permitting extend far beyond the construction phase. Continuous monitoring of environmental impacts post-construction is an important element of responsible project management. This could include tracking changes in wildlife population, assessing vegetation growth, and evaluating water quality.

Adaptive management is another not-so-secret strategy that allows developers to adjust project operations based on real-time monitoring data. This flexibility ensures that any unforeseen environmental impacts can be addressed promptly, reinforcing the commitment to long-term sustainability.

A Comprehensive Approach

Obtaining federal, state, and local regulators’ approvals requires a comprehensive approach to balancing the growing demand for renewable energy with the imperative to protect our planet. 

From meticulous site selection and engaging stakeholders to implementing wildlife protection measures and post-construction monitoring, every step in the permitting process plays a role in a harmonious relationship between solar energy and the environment. As the world continues its transition toward a sustainable energy future, understanding and applying these secrets—and the not-so-secrets—are essential for the success of solar projects and the preservation of our natural ecosystems.

It can look like there is a maze of environmental regulations between one and the approval to construct. 

Not a secret: there are. 

Consider bringing on a guide—someone who has been there before, knows the possible pitfalls and the possibilities, and understands the way. 

I’ll leave you with a real secret. They say the three most important things in real estate are “location, location, and location.” In permitting solar development, the top three are “location, location, and choice of consultant.”

Ken MacDonald is the Regional Director of Environmental Permitting and Compliance with UES, the national leading engineering and consulting company. He and his team have completed the permitting and/or compliance for more than 60 square miles of solar panels. He frequently teaches the workshop “Keeping Environmental Permits Off the Critical Path.”