Johnson & Clark: Efficient solar permitting can benefit communities and environment


This commentary is by Sonia Johnson and Jake Clark, vice presidents of construction and development, respectively, at Encore Renewable Energy in Burlington, which focuses on sustainable and cost-effective community-scale solar and large-scale energy storage projects.

The Vermont solar industry can help advance the energy transition away from polluting energy sources and toward clean sources of renewable energy for our state. And in doing so, we can grow our local economy, create jobs and provide the energy security that comes from relying on local, in-state energy generation for the energy needs of future generations.

It is important to remember that delivering solar projects at scale requires significant amounts of flat, open, cleared land. For a basic estimate, every megawatt of ground-mounted solar, capable of powering 200 average Vermont homes, requires about 5 acres of land.

There are market signals and incentives to meet this demand for solar energy that utilizes large rooftops, brownfields, landfills and parking lots. However, these sites are limited in number and size, so it’s important to leverage land that can host a solar array along with crop production and sheep grazing, or apiaries surrounded by pollinator-friendly ground cover.

The emerging practice of co-locating solar with agricultural uses and improvements is called “agrivoltaics,” which will be an important solar development practice for Vermont as the scale of solar deployment required to meet the various state and federal goals for decarbonizing our economy will require that additional open, cleared land be leveraged to support this buildout.

Given the importance of achieving the scale of solar deployment necessary to bend the curve on carbon in Vermont and throughout the region, we at Encore Renewable Energy feel it is critical to minimize the environmental impacts related to the construction and operation of the community-scale solar projects that we deliver to the market and to local host communities.

While there is always room for improvement — and we are excited to work with legislative leaders to advance critical permit reform efforts that will allow for low-impact solar development to proceed at the pace required by Vermont’s statutory requirements under the Global Warming Solutions Act — there are already a number regulatory mechanisms at the federal, state and local level to encourage proper site management during active solar project construction.

As an example, and in accordance with our philosophy of delivering the most environmentally friendly solar projects possible, Encore’s construction team recently engaged stormwater engineering professionals from VHB to provide our field crews with a stormwater permit compliance training program, consisting of both virtual classroom instruction and in-person on-site instruction. The objective of this training is to provide our team with a more robust and detailed understanding of the stormwater regulations that apply to solar projects in Vermont.

Training our field teams on stormwater compliance has had immense value. It allows us to streamline both regulatory permitting and inspection processes.

Enacting robust stormwater management practices at our solar projects is also allowing for more efficient construction timelines by focusing on preventing erosion throughout the construction period by properly staging higher traffic construction tasks.
Ongoing ground maintenance at the construction site for the Shelburne Museum’s new solar array allowed a rapid regrowth at the end of construction. At left, April 2021; at right, August 2021. Photos courtesy of Encore Renewable Energy.

This approach allows the site to transition to a regrowth period more quickly at the end of construction and facilitates a faster, and thus cheaper, demobilization of construction crews and equipment.

Managing stormwater runoff is but one of the environmental regulations that Vermont’s solar industry navigates in order to deliver this critically important energy infrastructure. Many other issues need to be addressed as well, and we look forward to working with both Vermont’s environmental regulatory community and the state Legislature to create more predictable, consistent and appropriate environmental regulations to govern the development and deployment of the local clean energy resources Vermont needs to meet our decarbonization requirements that will also provide energy security for all Vermonters.

All land development projects do not carry the same environmental impacts, and from an environmental compliance standpoint it should not be easier to deliver a strip mall than a solar project in Vermont.

As we look to decarbonize our economy and electrify everything in our homes, businesses, institutions and modes of transportation, massive amounts of new, clean energy generation will be required, much of it coming from community-scale solar. We owe it to the local communities that will host these clean energy projects to deliver this community benefit in the most environmentally friendly and efficient manner possible.

With the right policies, we can continue to improve underutilized property for clean energy generation and energy storage, while collectively revitalizing communities and creating a cleaner, brighter future for all.

Read the story on VTDigger here: Johnson & Clark: Efficient solar permitting can benefit communities and environment .

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