The lowering cost of wind and solar energy generation has a local impact: communities are going to see more wind and solar development projects, more often. Communities see many of the direct impacts from these developments, from tax revenues to opportunities for co-beneficial land uses to managing resident feedback on such development. Many local considerations and indicators can help communities understand opportunities for maximizing local co-benefits as the market continues to increase for utility-scale solar and wind development.

This is the second 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. The final installment in the series will address what local communities can do to increase readiness for project development.

Understanding Local Considerations

Shaping community goals and planning processes to accommodate wind and solar varies based on community values, goals, and vision. For example:

  • What governmental body has the authority to grant siting permits?
  • Can the county or local jurisdiction obtain siting authority if it does not already have it?
  • What conflicting land uses does the community want to ensure are preserved as renewable energy deployment increases?
  • For communities already experiencing development activity, what type of education can they provide to landowners around wind and solar deployment?
  • What co-benefits does the community hope to achieve through siting large-scale renewable energy projects, and do they want those co-benefits to be voluntary or mandated?
  • For communities that want to actively encourage wind and solar projects, what steps can they take to accelerate and accommodate development (e.g., developing an ordinance with siting specifications, outreach to residents on potential benefits of solar and wind development in their community)?

As counties begin to explore these questions, there are a number of data that they may look to in developing a more complete understanding of their renewable resource. A key element of the analyses that is done for wind and solar siting is the spatial extent of factors that could potentially impact the ability to use wind and solar resources. A series of maps we developed can help increase understanding of these factors and how they can be used to evaluate the various siting considerations.

There is no one formula for a community to determine what locations are “best” or “ideal” for utility-scale wind or solar development. Rather, there are a handful of primary considerations that can help foster conversation and community engagement around the topic.

Each community brings unique values and opportunities, as well as potential tensions, when it comes to renewable energy development.

Framing these considerations in local context is key to long-term planning and community outcomes.

The following section describes the primary considerations that a community can begin to assess as they prepare for utility-scale wind and solar development. Broken up by consideration, wind and solar development are separately addressed when relevant.

 

1. Agricultural land and prime farmland


Agricultural land
is land in crop production. Prime farmland is a land designation made by the National Resources Conservation Service and is determined by a variety of factors, including soil type, quality, and moisture. Prime farmland does not need to be used for agricultural production to still be considered prime farmland. Because wind and solar have such different physical space requirements, there are different considerations with regards to agricultural land and prime farmland.

Considerations for wind: Because utility-scale wind thrives where there are fewer obstructions to the wind stream, the flat, largely agricultural plains of the Midwest harbor a fantastic resource. Typically, because wind is a three-dimensional development (height is the goal, rather than breadth or groundcover) turbines are often used in concert with land in agricultural production, providing additional land rents to producers and resulting in minimal impact to the principal land use.

Considerations for solar: Whereas capturing a wind resource is focused on height, capturing solar a resource focuses on covering more land. For that reason, utility-scale solar can present land use conflicts, including potential conflicts with agricultural land uses (described further in this blog post), that require decisions by communities about what extent they value or want to promote various land uses.

 

2. Existing wind and solar projects

Any existing wind and solar development will likely inform how a community wants to approach new or additional development. The notion of repowering or decommissioning comes up with some developments, which describes the decision that must be made at the end of the insured life span for an existing utility-scale renewable development.

Sometimes communities chose to upgrade or repair existing developments to continue generation, and sometimes they require that the development be dismantled. These considerations are important for communities to think about, as the tenure of a given development will have far-reaching consequences related to community character, tertiary land uses, and emissions associated with energy consumption.

Similarly, a community may want to group large-scale utility projects in one area, or they may want them dispersed throughout the community. Understanding the type and location of pre-existing utility-scale developments will help shape these conversations. These is also growing conversation about locating both wind and solar in the same community–which each hit peak generation at different times (solar during the day, and wind at night). For communities experiencing increasing development pressures, thinking about how they envision co-location of wind and solar–if at all– is important.

 

 3. Existing transmission infrastructure

Utility-scale wind and solar development require transmission infrastructure to deploy the electricity generated from the development. Transmission infrastructure includes the power lines and cables used to take generated power to substations. From the substation, power is converted and sent out to end users (e.g., a home) on distribution infrastructure. Utility-scale renewable development is reliant on transmission infrastructure.

For many projects, proximity to transmission lines is a limiting cost factor, as the further away from infrastructure a project is, the more expensive it is to build out transmission lines to it. Furthermore, the local capacity of the transmission infrastructure (i.e., whether it can accommodate the additional energy generated from the development) will also have a large impact on cost – if the transmission infrastructure capacity is too low, the system will require upgrades to accommodate the new generation. As a proxy for the type of cost that transmission infrastructure build-outs would cost to a development, an estimated cost is roughly $1,000,000 per mile.

Given the cost of transmission lines, a project may not ultimately go ahead (even after the permitting and site acquisition project is complete) if the costs for transmission infrastructure and upgrades are too high. Communities can be aware of this factor as they evaluate the feasibility of a proposed project and use that understanding to inform dialogue between the community’s decision makers and the developer. To further address this, communities can increase their understanding of the availability and state of transmission infrastructure in, as well as become involved in the Midcontinent Independent System Operator (MISO) planning processes (MISO is the region’s transmission operator) when possible. These actions can help communities ensure that the vision they have for their utility-scale renewable deployment in the future is something that might be achievable. The third installment of this series will go into depth on specific ways communities can be more involved in the MISO and transmission siting process.

 

4. Habitat and environmental considerations

Environmental and natural resource considerations can also impact siting decisions. The Nature Conservancy released a low-risk wind siting assessment in 2019 that identifies ecosystems or habitats that may be at risk due to wind development. The mitigation of these potential risks is easily achieved if development occurs in areas without these ecosystems or sensitive habitats. This assessment is one of many considerations that communities may consider when seeking to understand their resource for wind and solar development. The assessment may assist communities in considering trade-offs or impacts of renewable development as it aligns with their goals to preserve or protect habitat or environmental resources.

There are many opportunities to capture co-benefits to environmental and natural resources associated with wind or solar development. GPI currently convenes a stakeholder group focused on maximizing co-benefits of solar development and natural resource protection through the Minnesota Solar Pathways project. For more information on opportunities to co-locate solar and agricultural land to maximize co-benefits (read more here).

 

5. Midcontinent Independent System Operator (MISO) Project Development Interconnection Queue

Finally, communities can look to the current MISO interconnection queue to gauge interest and market movement. The development process for utility-scale wind or solar requires application to the interconnection queue to be connected to the regional transmission system which is operated by MISO. The queue is not necessarily a direct indicator of which projects are going to be built because a fair number withdraw or are not built for site-specific reasons (for example, as noted above with the cost of transmission infrastructure upgrade to accommodate the project). However, identifying trends and interest through the queue can help communities understand trends of anticipated project developments in their region.

 

Spatial Considerations for Solar and Wind Development

Communities can analyze and evaluate key considerations conceptually, as well as spatially through mapping exercises. The following series of maps provides an overview of the how these types of considerations play out spatially across individual states where we are doing community outreach and education on utility-scale wind and solar siting–Minnesota, Iowa, and Wisconsin.

*note: The Nature Conservancy Site-Wind Right and habitat considerations maps are not yet publicly available for Wisconsin, which is why they are absent here.

 

These considerations paint a picture of a unique and community-specific context for wind and solar deployment. This context can provide the foundation for important conversations about integration of these considerations into short-term or long-term planning processes.

We are in the process of developing state-specific siting guides for utility-scale wind and solar (coming soon!) that detail local considerations such as siting authority, taxation of wind and solar developments, current market trends, and opportunities for community input throughout the siting process.

Summary

As utility-scale solar and wind markets continue to expand and prices continue to decline, communities may benefit from considering wind and solar development in their long-term planning processes, rather than solely on a project-by-project basis. The resources that the Great Plains Institute is developing will assist communities in understanding the market context, local resources, and potential land use considerations. Every community has its own goals and values to balance with the increasing market for utility-scale wind and solar. Community decision-makers have an opportunity to understand this market and to focus on long-term planning considerations for utility-scale solar and wind development that can make their communities well-positioned for the future.

If maps or data on these primary considerations are of interest to your specific community, contact one of the Great Plains Institute staff:

  • Jessi Wyatt, Energy Planner and Analyst
  • Jenna Greene, Communities Program Assistant

Sign-up for the GPI monthly newsletter to receive the next installment of this series, which will focus on what local communities can do to increase readiness for utility-scale wind and solar project development.

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