Wind turbines and farmland

Community-scale readiness is critical to the successful development of the Midwest’s abundant solar and wind energy resources. As utility-scale wind and solar development increases in the Midwest, communities should consider how renewable energy development aligns with local goals and values. A series of proactive actions can ensure that the way utility-scale renewables develop in a community is in line with community vision, reduces potential conflict, and optimizes co-benefits.

Midwestern states are seeing rapidly increasing amounts of solar and wind energy development, a trend that will accelerate over time. In just the past year, utilities in Michigan, Minnesota, Illinois, Iowa, and Wisconsin are forecast to dramatically increase solar and wind energy procurement. A few examples:

  • Michigan is forecast to see over 5,000 MW of solar installed by 2030.
  • Wisconsin will see over 1,000 MW of solar by 2023.
  • Iowa, a state already generating over 40 percent of its energy with wind turbines, expects substantial new wind and solar procurement, with forecasts of 100 percent renewable energy being reached in just a few years for its largest utility.

Understanding potential co-benefits for utility-scale wind and solar siting is crucial for a community to capitalize on or align development with existing community goals. Though each community is unique, there are steps that every community can take to prepare, plan, and produce their ideal outcomes for utility-scale wind and solar.

This post will describe actions that communities can pursue to ensure readiness for increasing utility-scale wind and solar development in the following areas (click the link to jump to that action):

Local Government Policy and Planning
  1. Include an energy section in the community’s comprehensive or long-range plan.
  2. Consider utility-scale energy systems in land use regulation and zoning.
  3. Develop performance standards that meet your community goals for renewable energy development.
  4. Develop a renewable electricity generation goal.
  5. Prepare for long-term project implications: repowering and decommissioning.
Education and Outreach
  1. Engage in proactive conversation and relationship-building with your community’s utility.
  2. Gain high-level familiarity with the transmission system operator and the interconnection process.
  3. Provide resources to community members.

This is the final post in a three-part series about increasing long-term market understanding in communities that can help them be prepared for utility-scale wind and solar project siting in the Midwest:

  • Part one focused on market forces and increasing the need for local communities to incorporate and plan for large-scale renewable deployment. 
  • Part two helped describe the adjacent conditions and constraints that can help inform community decisions around utility-scale siting and begin conversations to prepare for long-term pressures and opportunities.
  • This final installment in the series will address what local communities can do to increase readiness for project development.

Actions at the Community Level to Increase Readiness

Local Government Policy and Planning

1. Include an energy section in the community’s comprehensive or long-range plan.

Many communities have and regularly update a comprehensive or long-range plan. These plans look forward for 10 to 30 years and provide a long-term vision for how the community will change, grow, and evolve during that period. With the declining costs and growing market for renewable energy, communities have a growing need to address large-scale energy development in comprehensive plans.

As the cost of solar and wind energy decreases, communities will see increasing numbers of solar and wind development proposals. Consistent with other forms of development that communities plan for, communities should include solar and wind development as part of their comprehensive and long-term planning efforts. In Minnesota’s metropolitan region, for example, the State requires communities to include solar energy resources and planning for solar development in their comprehensive plans.

The market for wind and solar energy is growing rapidly, and development will inevitably expand into many communities that have not previously experienced it. Communities that opt to postpone the conversation on how these resources fit into their locale are missing the opportunity to shape how energy development will occur.

Many communities in the Midwest have already started to proactively consider how large-scale wind and solar development tie into their strategic priorities. Considering the growing market for large-scale wind and solar development when conducting long-term planning allows communities to consider and articulate:

  •  the ways in which development may benefit their community,
  •  where such development could occur with the least risk and most opportunity, and
  • interaction of renewable development with other land use and community development considerations.

Proactive communities recognize the increasing demand for wind and solar as a trend impacting long-term planning considerations in their long-range and comprehensive planning processes (and subsequent plans).

2. Consider utility-scale energy systems in land use regulation and zoning.

Solar and wind development at the utility-scale is a form of development just like other types of development in a community. Just as zoning standards outline where and how industry can or cannot operate, they also help shape where and how utility-scale wind and solar are developed.

Weighing the relative merits of a wind or solar development for its tertiary benefits—community tax revenue, job creation, local resilience—should occur just as it might for a new apartment complex or community center. Wind and solar development, as a land use, can conflict with, or benefit, surrounding land uses and natural systems. As with other land uses listed in a zoning code, a community should list solar and wind development as a land use. Whether it conflicts or benefits is a function of siting and design priorities set by the community in zoning and land use standards.

Large-scale wind and solar projects, like any other form of development, impact communities and community members in different ways. Wind energy development integrates well with agricultural uses but can create nuisances for residential land uses. Solar energy development can be designed to enhance habitat or pollinator functioning but can take agricultural land out of commodity production. Communities have tools readily available to capitalize on the co-benefits while mitigating potential conflict.

Site design considerations for wind/solar can optimize community-specific co-benefits, like water quality or pollinator habitat. Site-specific design considerations will vary based on the type of energy system (e.g., wind versus solar). There are opportunities across systems to proactively capitalize on co-benefits from both development and operation that advance goals or priorities that the community has already set forth. An example is simultaneously achieving natural resource or environmental protection goals with renewable energy generation.

Wind production and agricultural production often coincide, as wind turbines can operate on land in agricultural production without significantly impacting underlying production. Communities with natural resource protection or pollinator habitat development goals may prioritize solar site design that helps them reach these goals. Such standards might include native vegetation planting requirements under solar arrays, incentivizing pollinator-friendly plantings under solar arrays, or vegetative cover that allows for grazing. These site design options present opportunities to capture co-benefits related to community-specific goals.

Land use planning and zoning processes can also help communities shift their perspective on utility-scale renewables away from common misconceptions that solar gardens are an eyesore, or wind turbines a mysterious health nuisance to what these systems really are: a form of land use development that, when sited with intention and foresight, provide dynamic opportunities for community co-benefits to their economy, environment, and natural resources.

3. Develop performance standards that meet your community goals for renewable energy development.

Utility-scale wind and solar is a development opportunity just like any other. In this way, local governments with land use jurisdiction (be it city, county, village, etc.) have considerable authority to direct where and how these large-scale renewable energy deployments occur. The community that prioritizes renewable energy deployment can ensure that this development is accommodated in applicable zoning districts. This means that regulations on glare, aesthetic impacts, screening (fencing or shrubbery around a community solar garden, for example) follow best practices. This could also mean that large-scale renewable energy development is given priority in appropriate areas through an overlay district.

4. Develop a renewable electricity generation goal.

For communities considering ways to implement climate action, adoption of a renewable electricity generation goal pairs naturally with utility-scale solar and wind development, especially for counties and larger geographic jurisdictions, or communities with large areas of agricultural production. Because utility-scale renewable deployment occurs at large scales, for a county government, a renewable energy generation goal may be greater than 100 percent of their localized electricity needs. For smaller communities, it may not be feasible to strive for such an ambitious goal. For those communities, local governments — and community members — could also elect to purchase a share of their energy needs from dedicated renewable energy sources, which contributes to the overall market demand for increased utility-scale renewable deployment across the dispatch system. For example, a public goal for increasing renewable electricity use may help communicate to the transmission system operator that there may be a need for transmission system upgrades in the future.

5. Prepare for long-term project implications: repowering and decommissioning.

Because utility-scale wind and solar development has increased rapidly within the last 20 years, how the community addresses repowering and decommissioning is a growing consideration for utility-scale development. While both repowering and decommissioning typically occur at the natural end of the lifespan for the energy technology (e.g., usually after 20-30 years), they describe different outcomes. Repowering describes the upgrade or re-investment in project infrastructure to continue electric generation at that site. Decommissioning occurs when a project is taken down at the end of its life cycle. Both repowering and decommissioning impact solar and wind developments, and the impacts will vary significantly based on state, size, and existing conditions in the specific community. Stay tuned for a more in-depth blog post on the long-term considerations around repowering and decommissioning.

Education and Outreach

1. Engage in proactive conversation and relationship-building with your community’s utility.

For communities that want to see solar and wind development, the electric utility provider is a key partner. Often, the utility will be the entity dealing with large-scale infrastructure upgrades and construction. While the utility’s values may not necessarily align with community values, having proactive dialogue and creating educational opportunities with local-level decision makers and the utility can create avenues to communicate support for large-scale wind and solar.

2. Gain high-level familiarity with the transmission system operator and the interconnection process

All transmission and distribution infrastructure processes in the Midwest are managed by the regional transmission organization such as the Midcontinent Independent System Operator (MISO). Across the Midwest, the system needs a sizeable number of electric transmission and distribution infrastructure upgrades and build-out. Minnesota’s electricity demands have risen with a steady population increase and emerging technologies, like electric vehicles. These trends, combined with a push for electrification, will only compound that demand in the coming years. Projects in the MISO queue are not guaranteed to be built but do provide communities with a high level of familiarity with wind and solar markets across the region. Communities should be aware that transmission investment to support the increased market for wind and solar development may also involve land use considerations at the community level.

3. Provide resources to community members

Recognize that certain landowners might be dealing with these projects directly (such as farmers, large landowners, etc.) and the local government is uniquely situated to help them be prepared for when developers reach out to them. As has already occurred in many Midwestern communities, developers first approach a landowner to broker a rent or lease agreement. Oftentimes the landowner has no prior information on utility-scale renewable deployment.

This creates an increasing necessity for community members to have access to resources that can help inform their decision-making process. It also provides the local government the opportunity to communicate any existing policies, programs, or pertinent information that may be community-specific. This type of information and education may be as simple as having materials available on the community website, or it may become as involved as hosting a workshop where people can discuss their excitement and/or concern about large-scale solar and wind in the community. The extent and format of education and outreach should be tailored to the specific needs of the community.

Here are examples of materials available, all of which cover topics including common misconceptions, potential benefits, and trends:

If you are interested in hosting a utility-scale wind or solar workshop or would like more information on resources available (and relevant) to your specific community, please reach out to:

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