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A Model for Simplifying Solar Zoning and Permitting Processes: Solar Field Overlay Zones

published: 2011-07-06 15:42

Several years ago, former Vice-President of the United States Al Gore attempted to install solar modules on the roof of his Tennessee home; the local zoning ordinance  prohibited the installation of  such equipment above ground level. The town of Belle Meade subsequently changed the rules in 2007. This scenario highlights a major problem for installation and reducing the cost of projects in the U.S. - disharmony, obstacles and inconsistencies in federal, state and local zoning and permitting approval processes from region to region.

U.S. developers do not have the benefit of a national, comprehensive zoning and permitting process. As a result, many developers must tailor each project to meet the rules and requirements of local, state and federal authorities. Developers in countries like Germany and Japan do not have to obtain permits for residential installations. In addition, national polices emphasize a uniform zoning and permitting structure.

The Cost of Zoning and Permitting

Solar installation company SunRun, recently issued a report that revealed the solar permitting process in the United States adds $2,516 ($0.50 per watt) to the average residential project. A solar installer out of  California said he had 50 autonomous  zoning and permitting authorities - each with its own rules for issuing permits for solar projects  -- within a 50-mile radius of his office location. His company has to deliver its permitting packages.

The typical zoning and permitting process entails applying for amendments to the underlying zoning. This process could become embroiled in local politics and take numerous hearings before the developer receives approval to begin the project. Solar developers encounter a similar scenario in each jurisdiction - submitting an application for amendments to the underlying zoning laws and dancing to the tune of the local authorities.

Zoning and Land Use Laws in the U.S.

Land use laws and environmental issues govern the installation of solar power systems large and small. Federal laws enacted in 1916 and 1928 -- the State Zoning Enabling Acts (SZEA) of 1916 and the Standard City Planning Enabling Act (SCPEA), grants states the right to determine zoning and land use in their jurisdictions.

Many municipalities have a “Comprehensive Plan for Development,” which guides the long-range plans for development of the community. In many areas, the Comprehensive Plan constitutes a legal document.

One major issue for the quick approval of solar developments in many American towns and counties has been the categorization of large utility-scale projects as “industrial development.” With projects requiring hundreds of acres, developers have to go through the legal process to rezone vast tracts of land for solar plants.

How Solar Field Overlay Zones Work

The Arizona (AZ) area attracts utility-scale developers because of its 300 days of sunlight each year. Gila Bend, a town of 2,000 residents, and located 70 miles southwest of Phoenix, AZ, created a new policy that enables it to eliminate a major portion of the time it takes to approve solar projects. In 2010, Gila Bend’s town council passed the Solar Field Overlay Zone (SFOZ) Ordinance. The concept behind the SFOZ designation, leave the existing zoning in place and authorize a SFOZ, bypasses the mandatory rezoning and entitlement process required to rezone the land. The SFOZ label remains in place for the life of the project.

SFOZs speed up the traditional rezoning process. The project developer meets with Gila Bend's Zoning Administrator to present the proposed project, discuss the review and approval process, and go over the documents the developer must include with the application. In addition, the developer submits an engineer site plan with the application that meet the town's building codes and other requirements.

The administrator studies the application and schedules it for review with the local Commission. The streamlined process follows a predetermined time line. For example, two weeks after the application submittal, the project goes through a Citizen Review Session. Two weeks later, the Planning and Zoning Commission schedules a hearing. Fourteen days later, the proposal goes before the Town Council for hearing and approval. A process that formerly took up to two years could now obtain approval in four months.

Other provisions of the SFOZ ordinance include a minimum project size of 100 acres, except for projects proposed next to other SFOZs, which have a 40-acre minimum. The town also has the authority to enter lease option agreements with developers. The rule stipulates developers must begin the project within one year.

Besides obvious benefits, such as  clean energy  sources of power, job creation and tax revenues, Gila Bend protects the town from going through the legal process of rezoning large parcels of land and having the deal fall through. So far, the city has attracted three major projects to its boundaries, Solana CSP Plant (280 MW), solar photovoltaic plant (18 MW), and a 17-megawatt photovoltaic facility. The town, which has the official mission of becoming the "solar capital of the world," also has other projects in the pipeline.

SunShot Initiative: Simplifying Zoning and Permitting

Gila Bend's Solar Field Overlay Zones represent the type of forward thinking the Department of Energy had in mind when it launched its SunShot Initiative in early 2011. Issues concerning zoning and permitting for solar project occupied a prominent position on the DOE's list of primary objectives for the program designed to help America reclaim its status as the global leader for solar manufacturing and development.

The DOE program intends to drive down the cost of solar by 75% the cost breakdown for solar installations at $1.00 per watt is as follows: $.50 for the solar panel, $.10 for electrical parts, and $.40 for balance of systems (BOS). A large component of the BOS consists of permitting and zoning costs. The DOE determined that most of the cost reductions would have come from BOS components, especially the zoning and permitting component.

The DOE has committed $25 million to this effort. It has also made available $12.5 million in grants to support local governments to come up with innovative solutions, such as SFOZs, which restructure and automate permitting procedures. In addition, the DOE allocated $15 million to address the development of comprehensive zoning, building codes, and other regulations that expedite solar projects through burdensome zoning and permitting processes.

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