Environmental Impact: Avoiding Long-term Cost and Conflict

We’ve seen a large number of solar energy projects being proposed in California’s desert area, along with subsequent backlash from environmentalists regarding the impact of endangered animals. For developers, the obvious solution is to avoid these tracts of land. But this is no small task

The federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has received right-of-way requests encompassing more than 300,000 acres for the development of approximately 34 large-scale solar thermal power plants totaling approximately 24,000 megawatts. With land for development growing scarce, it’s more essential than ever that solar companies and their investors understand the laws, regulations and environmental impact before work gets underway. In fact, to safeguard against costly legal entanglements, developers of medium- and large-sized solar power projects should hire an environmental consultant and environmental attorney to guide them through both the technical and legal issues related to siting solar projects.

Two key laws that have led to delays, the halting of, or major changes to projects are the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The Supreme Court has ruled that federal agencies whose actions are subject to NEPA must take a “hard look” at the environmental impacts caused by their actions. ESA requires the identification and protection of all lands, water and air necessary to recover endangered species, taking into consideration population growth, food, water, light or other nutritional requirements, breeding sites, seed germination and dispersal needs, and lack of disturbances.

It’s critical that developers understand the process – and what has worked well for other solar power companies. Early engagement and guidance are essential. Once companies have invested time and money in a site, it’s more difficult to make changes. Trying to improve projects after major investments have been made is no substitute for careful comprehensive planning, designing and siting projects in cooperation with scientists, local stakeholders, conservationists and technology solution experts. Strategically, it’s about reducing costs and conflict at the back end.

While medium-sized solar projects — ground and roof installations in municipalities and cities – are not subject to NEPA, they still require careful planning and guidance. The Orange County Convention Center was awarded a $2.5 million grant from the state of Florida to install a 1-MW rooftop solar photovoltaic system. The largest PV system of its kind in the southeastern United States, the success of the solar panel project relied on a technology solution expert that worked closely with the state and county to develop a solar power solution that would help them achieve their greenhouse gas reduction objectives. The more energy the convention center can generate on its own, the less it has to buy, which has helped the OCCC reduce total energy costs significantly.

Finding a solar energy site depends upon understanding the full breadth of legal, regulatory and environmental issues associated with the land in question, especially for large-scale projects. To avoid long-term delays and expense, it’s imperative that developers do their research and rely on environmental, legal and technology experts. In fact, I advocate that the U.S. Department of the Interior develop national siting guidance for future renewable energy development on public lands so that effective, sustainable solar projects can be sited and built.

Michael Gorton, a lawyer and power systems engineer is CEO and Chairman of Principal Solar, a leader in the solar power industry.  Gorton has also built successful ventures in the telecommunications, music, and healthcare industries.

Image: Pedro Salaverría via Shutterstock

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