These days, any solar developer with an Internet connection and a good computer screen can, without even leaving their home or office, easily identify many potential locations for solar development: large, wide-open, relatively flat, south-facing sites that are close to available utility-grid interconnection spots.
But what more than a few developers have learned the hard way is that with almost all projects, it makes sense to retain an engineering and/or environmental professional early on to conduct a “critical issue analysis” of potential solar sites before racing ahead with development. Just like retaining a home inspector before you close on the purchase of a house or condo, retaining the right kind of professional early in the process to conduct an onsite inspection of a solar site that a desktop search suggests as promising can save you from all kinds of grief and wasted expense.
Here are five examples of problems that can be identified and avoided by supplementing web-based location research with in-person professional analysis:
1. Erroneous wetland map designations — both false negatives and false positives.
While solar developers have many options to use Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and available state wetland resources for reviewing wetland maps of sites they’re scrutinizing, only an in-person trip to the site by a wetland scientist will help determine if there are wetland and stream resources on the site. Available wetland maps online are notoriously inaccurate and do not provide the whole “picture” of current site conditions. For example, a trip to the field may reveal that a farmer is offering up a specific area of his farm for solar projects because that’s where his tractor gets stuck in the mud every spring — it’s been a farmed wetland all those years.
2. Trash piles and abandoned cars/equipment.
Depending on the last time a Google Earth satellite took a picture of a given location and what was growing or not at that time of year, a trip to the field may reveal the presence of debris piles at a promising location that will require significant time and expense to clear out of the way before installing solar PV equipment. This is especially common on large farms in rural areas far from vehicle- and trash-recycling facilities. An American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) Phase I Environmental Site Assessment is an important first step during the due diligence process.
3. Habitat supporting protected or endangered species.
Online federal and state resources will identify if the project may be in the vicinity of rare and endangered species. Onsite confirmation of suitable habitat can help determine if additional surveys such as a grassland bird survey would be required. Depending on when a satellite image was made and during what time of year, only a field visit may reveal whether what looked like an abandoned farm field or hayfield now has successional habitat with small trees and shrubs and other plants that may be providing home to birds, turtles, snakes and other wildlife that are protected species, limiting or preventing development of the site for solar PV.
4. Site accessibility.
Sure, it may look from the aerial images that there’s a wide-open dirt road that reaches the proposed solar array location … but is the access on the same property? How muddy or rocky or impassable does it get? Is there unimpeded access from a public highway to the site?
5. Finally, are there zoning restrictions or special permit requirements that may restrict or prohibit the use of a site for solar development?
There may even be an outright moratorium on solar installation in a town or village because of local backlash against conversion of farmland to solar PV or removal of trees and vegetation to create “open fields” for solar. Particularly in smaller towns, zoning, permit and moratorium information may not be readily posted and findable online. Engaging an expert who knows their way around the local Town Hall, has connections with local officials and sometimes can provide insight into the local community politics around solar can fill in blanks you can’t find searching around online.
The adage that time is money is at least as true of solar development as it is anything else. Engaging an environmental or engineering consultant early in the planning stages and evaluating critical issues of a promising solar site can save time, money and hassles by identifying challenges — and even project-threatening obstacles.
GZA Senior Project Manager Benjamin Haith, PG, has over 20 years of experience with environmental due diligence investigations and site environmental characterization in upstate New York and the mid-Atlantic. Senior Project Manager Julia Braunmueller, PWS, has spent 13 years in environmental engineering in projects across the northeast. Project Manager Adrienne Dunk, WPIT, has worked on ecological services projects across New York, New England, and New Jersey for over a decade. Assistant Project Manager Rachel Radicello, CPESC has six years of experience in the environmental science field.