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Solar Energy Siting Facilities

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Energy is an essential resource and local governments are now looking toward renewable sources (i.e. wind, geothermal heat, water flows, biomass, and sunlight) as energy demand and greenhouse gas emissions increase.  The California Renewable Energy Resources Act (SB 1-2) requires California electricity providers to provide at least 33 percent of power from renewable sources by 2020.  The state has also set the goal of 1 million solar roofs by 2020. As a resource for achieving this goal, cities and counties have access to an unprecedented amount of funding for solar energy technologies and projects from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.

Many cities and counties have had success balancing solar energy promotion while also protecting agricultural land and wildlife habitats.  One way to do this is through an ordinance that offers streamlined permitting processes only to solar facilities that are located in areas where there is existing electrical infrastructure or minimize significant impacts on the local environment. 

Local governments can encourage solar energy facility siting in a number of other ways, such as implementing solar access ordinances or easements, streamlining procedures for permitting and connecting systems to the energy grid, prohibiting restrictions imposed by homeowner associations, including solar energy mandates in local building codes and standards, creating financing solutions, establishing incentive programs, and training installation contractors.  Any solar energy facility siting program or regulation consists of definitions of the type, scale, and extent of allowable solar devices, the types of structures or uses affected, and the allowable angles at which the solar easement may extend over the real property.

The first step for creating solar energy facility programs or regulations is to organize and strategize a local solar effort by creating an advisory committee, hiring a solar coordinator, and gathering information on existing conditions and potential goal targets.  This comprehensive effort should include an assessment of a community’s policy environments to identify existing solar requirements and investment, existing financing and future funding opportunities, potential energy compensation, and prospective system installation and interconnection.  Additionally, local governments should survey residents, businesses, and stakeholders to establish the demand for solar energy in the community, the local industry’s ability to meet demand, and local perceptions of the cost, effectiveness, and reliability of solar technologies.  By conducting an installation baseline study, local governments can gather information on all solar energy installations that already exist in the community and the community’s level of experience with solar development.  This information may then be used to establish targets for the type, number, and sectors of solar installation and may include indicators for installed capacity to meet climate change or greenhouse gas reduction goals.

Once local governments have acquired background information and community input, they may begin to incorporate solar energy facility programs or regulations into broader city or county planning efforts such as the general plan, a climate action plan, community master plans, or local building or zoning codes.  When developing solar energy facility programs or regulations, local governments should consider including all of the following best practices:

  • Make solar affordable for residents and businesses by offering rebates or tax credits, loans or financing programs, power purchase agreements, or renewable portfolio standard percentages to residents and businesses.
  • Update and enforce local rules and regulations with solar access policies, solar building guidelines, streamlined solar permits, or code official and installation training.
  • Improve utility policies and processes by establishing interconnection standards, crediting customers for solar energy through net metering, or creating rate structures that offer dynamic pricing for solar customers.
  • Create jobs and support economic development by creating opportunities for the solar industry, recruiting solar businesses, and developing workforce education programs.
  • Educate and empower potential customers through outreach efforts that include customer assistance, project demonstrations, and solar mapping.
  • Lead by example with installations on government properties acquired through standardized solicitations, tax exempt financing, tax credit bond financing, third-party finance models, or wholesale power generators.  

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