How to overcome community solar siting challenges

Pivot Energy & Standard Solar collaborated to develop 11 community solar sites in Colorado (Courty: Standard Solar).

Contributed by Eric Partyka, Standard Solar

To achieve our nation’s clean energy and carbon reduction goals, we will need to deploy much more solar power. This applies to all projects, regardless of their size or market segment. We need solar power for rooftops and parking lots. We need utility-scale solar plants. We must also increase deployment in a critical but underserved segment of the market, community solar.

Community solar is essential 

Although still a vastly underutilized in terms of its potential, community-solar has been growing in the U.S. 

Over 3.6 GW of community solar projects were operating across the U.S. by late 2021, and in the next five years, deployments are expected to increase by 4.5 GW of capacity. New York State just hit the 1 GW milestone, surpassing top community solar state Minnesota’s 830 MW of operational community solar capacity. The U.S. DOE recently announced an ambitious goal for community solar systems to power the equivalent of 5 million American homes by 2025. 

Community solar, because it is situated close to where people live and work, provides a host of benefits that remotely sited solar can’t provide, such as local environmental benefits, jobs that can’t be outsourced, and other economic stimulation for communities. It also mitigates the enormous expense of long-distance transmission lines, which are the fastest-growing component of electricity bills in many parts of the country. 

Community solar also allows everyone to directly benefit from solar. Because an estimated 50-75% of Americans can’t put solar on their own roof, community solar is vital for extending solar access to all. Community solar projects often pay taxes to the municipalities they are located, which helps the whole community.

Community solar sitting challenges

Despite the projected growth, however, community solar projects in the U.S. face many challenges. Siting is one of the biggest challenges. 

Some commercial and municipal entities, like many people, cannot install solar onsite. They may not have their own roof or roofs that are in good condition. Individuals and businesses may prefer to use community solar offsite.

Local opposition has grown as offsite projects have become more popular in the country. There are many reasons for local opposition, including concerns about damaging sensitive areas, ruining views, or changing the character and character of a particular region.

While it’s easy to dismiss this opposition as NIMBYism, the concerns can be valid. And they’re often voiced by environmentalists who like the idea of renewable energy but object to specific projects. 

We can’t ignore these siting concerns. We have many options to address them. A good starting place is a recent white paper by the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), which outlines a framework for siting offsite community solar projects. These are the pillars of the framework:

  • Design the solar project to encourage habitat/biodiversity and dual-use. 
  • Avoid adverse environmental impacts. 
  • Minimize environmental impacts. 
  • Mitigate any unavoidable environmental impacts.

This framework allows for two types community solar projects: solar-on-landfills and solar-on farmland.

Landfills

Closed landfills are ideal for community solar siting, making productive use out of land that might otherwise lie dormant. Many factors make landfills an ideal location for community-based solar projects.

  • These sites offer limited potential for other uses.
  • They already detract from the local scenery and can’t be said to add to a community’s character in a positive way. 
  • They’re connected to electric infrastructure and roads and aren’t usually shaded. 
  • There are incentives available for landfill site assessment, cleanup and reuse. 
  • Solar panels on landfills can promote environmental justice because many landfills are found in economically disadvantaged areas.

You can find landfills in or near almost every community. In fact, a 2021 RMI report found that the 10,000+ closed and inactive landfills in the U.S. could host approximately 63 GW of solar capacity — enough to power 7.8 million American homes.

Communities around the country have begun to site solar on landfills, with projects in places as diverse as Stafford, Connecticut, Urbana, Illinois, and Houston, Texas. But there’s room for much more. Solar on landfills has so many benefits, it is worth evaluating every U.S. closed landfill to determine if a community-based solar installation is a good fit.

Agrivoltaics

Of course, landfills alone won’t provide enough space for all the solar panels we need. Farmland is a rare opportunity for dual-use that can benefit farmers, livestock, and crops. This practice is known as agrivoltaics.

A 2021 study by Oregon State University estimated that by using just 1% of American farmland for agrivoltaics, the U.S. could generate 20% of our electricity needs — while also saving water and creating a sustainable food system. The projects would generate more than 100,000 jobs in both installation and operations & maintenance.

Agrivoltaics has many benefits:

  • Increase crop production for crops that thrive in the shade provided by solar panel; shade can also reduce water consumption.
  • Increasing the land’s productivity by letting it lie uncultivated for some years so it can regenerate.
  • Plant native grasses and pollinator-friendly plants along with solar panels to reverse habitat loss.
  • Reducing energy costs on electricity-intensive farms.
  • Compensation for farmers who use their land may be possible to allow them to keep their farm. 
  • Increasing solar panel efficiency. Panels installed above crops keep them cooler. 

The jury is still out about which crops perform best when solar panels are installed alongside them. A Maine farm is trying a combination of solar and blueberries. Saffron, a particularly lucrative but low-maintenance crop, is showing great promise as an ideal pairing with solar — with the added benefit of crop diversification. Leafy greens and root crops are also well suited to agrivoltaics. Jack’s Solar Garden in Boulder County, Colorado, is experimenting with 40 types of crops under their solar arrays and 3,000 trees, shrubs, and other pollinator-friendly plants.

When solar panels aren’t a good mix with a crop, they can be sited on unproductive parts of a farm. In some cases, panels may be installed on higher racks to allow cattle to graze under the shade. A growing number of agrivoltaics projects, like the Checkerspot Community Solar Project near the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland, support habitat for bees and butterflies, both critical pollinators.

With so many uses and benefits, it’s clear that agrivoltaics is an area with enormous potential. It’s crucial that we maximize this potential, particularly in light of increasing community solar siting challenges. By mitigating these challenges — while benefiting farmers, crops, livestock, and pollinators — agrivoltaics is emerging as a key player in achieving our nation’s clean energy goals.


About the author

Standard Solar’s Director for Business Development is Eric Partyka. He has a Master’s degree in Energy & Environmental Policy from the University of Delaware. While there he conducted research for the Delaware State Senate’s Energy Transit Committee and the Maryland Energy Administration. 

His past experience includes SunEdison, where he was a Sales Analyst who specialized in municipal and utility opportunities. He worked on several projects, including the City of Santa Fe as well as Montgomery County Public Schools. In addition, Mr. Partyka is the co-author of a Department of Energy publication titled, “Procuring Solar Energy: A Guide for Federal Facility Decision Makers”. Partyka was previously the Carlisle Construction Materials sales and marketing manager, solar and energy efficiency initiatives.