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We deliver real-world energy solutions today to build a sustainable tomorrow. - See more at:

We deliver real-world energy solutions today to build a sustainable tomorrow. - See more at:
We deliver real-world energy solutions today to build a sustainable tomorrow. - See more at:
We deliver real-world energy solutions today to build a sustainable tomorrow. - See more at:

Conditional Use Permits for Solar Energy Facilities

June 07, 2016

When utility scale ground mounted solar projects are initially proposed to a particular governing agency, the development goes through the Conditional Use Permit (CUP) process. This is a typical process which defines the requirements for building the facility in a particular town, city or county. The jurisdiction’s planning commission will define specific conditions and requirements which are necessary to ensure the project will be consistent with surrounding land uses and will not negatively impact adjacent properties.

Environmental quality compliance studies will usually be required and are frequently a requirement in Conditional Use Permits. The resulting environmental mitigation measures will be defined to ensure the solar development does not have a negative environmental impact on wildlife, plants or the community. Like any development, the solar project could be required to go through public hearings, appeals, and several rounds of adjustments and modifications before the jurisdiction will settle on the required conditions of approval (COAs) and mitigation measures (MMs).

Balancing Act

The development timeline for a large scale ground mount solar project can be 3 to 36 months or more. The timelines can be particularly long because solar developers are frequently negotiating Power Purchase Agreements (PPAs) with utility companies while also working through the CUP process and utility Interconnection Agreement (IA) process. This is often a delicate balancing act because the solar facility energy production is being estimated at the same time the Conditions of Approval are being established all while the utility company is performing system impact studies on how the additional energy production will affect the grid. It’s a three-way balancing act that we respect and understand and one which always keeps the engineering team on its toes!

Getting It Right

The solar facility requirements which are established in the Conditional Use Permit are paramount to developing a financially attractive energy generation facility. During the 3 to 12 month period in the CUP process, the facility gets locked in and defined by the original design documents which were submitted. The specific conditions and mitigations required for the project become stuck to the project after the developer has spent precious time and money creating a viable project. Therefore it is essential to properly define the solar facility with some flexibility and to negotiate the specific details in the Conditional Use Permit with care.

Negotiate Flexibility

The best time to state the project’s intentions and negotiate with the planning and permitting agency is at the very beginning of the project development, far before the project moves towards buying equipment and seeking construction permits. The goal for any developer is to submit a design which allows the flexibility needed when new equipment or design measures are selected after the CUP process and before construction. The key is to know what the planning departments look for during their CUP review and what will eliminate any need to revisit the CUP process later. PPA deadlines and interconnection queues often override any “bright ideas” to revise CUPs through the 3 to 12 month revision process we find as typical in most jurisdictions.

Minimum Requirements

So what do planning departments generally look for in the CUP process? Planning departments typically look for these minimum details:

  • Overall solar array layout
  • Buffer dimensions
  • Building types and sizes
  • Equipment heights and aesthetics
  • Proposed grading
  • Storm water impacts
  • Traffic impacts
  • Road improvements


Thinking Ahead

Even though projects vary on a site by site basis, there are several areas of the CUP design that can be approached strategically. If mass site grading is potentially necessary, then it would be reasonable to propose mass grading or some grading from the beginning of the CUP process so it is always an option. Detailed topography and boundary surveys should take place before the CUP site plans are created so there is a better idea of the challenges ahead. Storm water mitigations can be looked at and discussed in advance. The more historical drainage patterns are maintained, the less likely storm water runoff will need to be detained on site. The need for an Operations and Maintenance building should be thoroughly investigated early. The requirements for fire suppression and other utility routing and construction can become an arduous and costly task. Understanding the local fire department’s criteria for access and site protection can allow for a more efficient and realistic PV array layout from the beginning. If a fixed tilt, single axis tracker, or other solar module mounting systems could potentially be utilized, it would be wise to propose all of these systems as options during the CUP process. It’s reasonable to present options to the agency and prepare for technology changes, interconnection changes and property changes which may take place 12 to 24 months later. The minimal money spent for proper site planning for a solar facility can have significant impacts on the financial return for the project’s 30 year life. It’s worth the effort to think ahead and engage the professional support needed at very early stages to deliver best-in-class solar facilities!

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