Solar@Scale: Opportunities for Planners to Act

The decarbonization of the U.S. electricity grid is already well underway. This is due, in large part, to economic and policy drivers that have combined to make solar power the cheapest source of electricity in many parts of the country. Despite significant progress, there is still a long way to go, and local planners have a vital role to play in facilitating the clean energy transition.

According to DOE's recent Solar Futures Study, grid emissions are on track to decrease by 61 percent by 2050, relative to 2005 levels. This is based solely on the current pace of deployment of solar energy systems and other clean energy technologies. However, full decarbonization of the U.S. energy system will require new federal and state policies, and approximately 10.3 million acres dedicated to community– and utility–scale solar development.

Future demand for solar development will be widespread, though not equally distributed across all local jurisdictions. As we note in Solar@Scale: A Local Government Guidebook for Improving Large-Scale Solar Development Outcomes, the local demand for solar development depends, to a large extent, on local government policies and implementation strategies (see Table 1). And for each of these potential points of intervention, planners have opportunities to promote context-sensitive community– or utility–scale solar development in the communities they serve.

Table 1. Local Policies and Actions That Can Affect Local Demand for Large-Scale Solar Development

Policy or Action Potential Effect on Local Demand
Community plans that provide a clear policy direction for large-scale solar development Can increase demand by signaling to developers that the local jurisdiction is interested in locally sited projects
Zoning updates that explicitly permit large-scale solar development in one or more areas of the jurisdiction Can increase demand by removing unintentional barriers to solar development and establishing incentives for projects that align with community goals
Process improvements that optimize discretionary land-use reviews for large-scale solar projects Can increase demand by shortening the development review timeline
Development partnerships that bring large-scale solar energy systems to local-government-owned sites Can increase demand by providing pre-approved locations for projects and, potentially, customers for the power produced
Technical or financial assistance programs for solar developers Can increase demand for projects that meet program criteria in locations that meet program criteria

During community planning processes, planners can summarize the potential benefits of locally sited solar facilities and facilitate conversations about potential tradeoffs. Planners can also help analyze the effects of existing policies on solar development opportunities and identify preferred sites for community– and utility–scale projects based on community priorities.

Once a community has articulated a vision for large-scale solar development, planners help make this vision a reality by drafting zoning regulations that acknowledge large-scale solar development as a distinct permissible land use.

Through well-crafted zoning standards, planners can also encourage low-impact solar development on previously developed sites or through pollinator-friendly ground cover or the co-location of solar energy systems and agricultural activities.

Many, if not most, large-scale solar development projects will need one or more discretionary land-use approvals. Through development review processes, planners can shape community– and utility–scale solar projects in ways that increase benefits and reduce tradeoffs. This can start with pre-application meetings and continue through the drafting of conditions of approval.

Additionally, some communities have local-government-owned sites that could host community– or utility–scale solar facilities. In these communities, planners can help facilitate public-private solar development partnerships by screening potential sites and crafting project objectives.

Lastly, some communities may elect to offer technical or financial assistance for solar projects that advance equitable development or other high priority local goals. Depending on the nature of these efforts, planners may assist with program design, administration, or evaluation.

For an in-depth discussion, see the new Solar@Scale guidebook. And stay tuned for further information about a series of Solar@Scale webinars, workshops, and other events, starting in early 2022.

Help Lead the Clean Energy Transition!

APA, in partnership with ICMA, is seeking volunteer trainers for a series of Solar@Scale webinars, virtual workshops, and other virtual or in-person events designed to help local governments maximize benefits and minimize tradeoffs associated with large-scale solar development. Previous experience in planning for solar energy use is optional. Passion for helping planners and local officials fight climate change and lead the clean energy transition is a plus. Interested in learning more? Fill out this short form, and we'll be in touch.

Have a question about Solar@Scale or want to share your experiences with planning and zoning for large-scale solar development? Contact

Top image: Photo by Dennis Schroeder / NREL.

About the Authors
Alexsandra Gomez is a research associate with APA.
David Morley, AICP, is a research program and QA manager with APA.

November 1, 2021

By Alexsandra Gomez, David Morley, AICP