Solar innovation is reaching critical mass, opening new markets and driving solar developers to new real estate.
With solar PV (photovoltaic) costs collapsing by four-fifths in the last five years, and demand for renewable energy picking up, a perfect storm for solar energy installation is emerging. Incentives and tax breaks still make a big financial difference-and Congress did its part with the extension of the solar tax credit in the omnibus bill at the end of 2015.
There are also many state and local incentives and policies designed to encourage solar energy development, like New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s recent announcement of a $5 billion renewable energy plan. Keeping track of the multitude of solar incentives can be a challenge but the website DSIRE keeps a comprehensive and updated source of information on incentives and policies supporting renewables and energy efficiency. This invaluable tool helps navigate the landscape of overlapping policies to help determine where particular incentives apply, and for whom.
But as solar energy innovation continues to accumulate and solar prices continue to plummet, the day solar out-competes fossil fuels and nuclear without any supportive incentives is finally within sight. Small, expensive residential rooftop installations-beginning with the kind Jimmy Carter put on top of the White House in the 70’s-have evolved into no-money-down lease arrangements that are widely accessible to homeowners and business owners in many markets. Massive commercial installations are also less expensive and slimming down. Whereas 20 or 30+ acres were necessary in the past, now developers are pursuing 10 and even 5-acre projects with the right conditions. And new models, such as community solar, are slimming acreage needs even further.
‘Community solar’ refers to community-owned projects or third party-owned installations whose electricity is shared by a community-sometimes referred to as a solar garden. The primary purpose of community solar is to give multiple households or members of a community the opportunity to share the benefits of solar power even if they cannot or prefer not to install solar panels on their own property. As residential solar developers have discovered during the mini-boom of the past cycle, many rooftops are simply not suitable for solar installation.
Community solar developers are opening new markets by approaching geography in new ways, looking to develop sites as small as 2.5 acres or less and developing multiple micro-sites together. This opens up the potential of many areas where the inventory of suitable large-scale sites is very low-such as the northeast, particularly in populated areas along the coast. Rural and remote areas have large available parcels, but can lack infrastructure and connectivity. Larger installations can also face regulations imposed by state and federal agencies to avoid, minimize, or mitigate habitat loss or fragmentation.
Smaller solar installations are especially good matches for urban markets with fewer ecosystem impacts, existing infrastructure, more end-user demand and high inventories of smaller sites. Underutilized greyfield and brownfield real estate is ideally-suited for solar use because it can be a less expensive reuse (compared to typical commercial or residential uses) and still generates income and/or saves utility costs for the user. As former industrial and commercial properties, greyfields and brownfields tend to be in areas with ready access to existing infrastructure such as electric transmission lines and substations necessary to load excess power on the utility grid. More contaminated real estate and landfills have highly constricted reuse options, and solar development is an add-on that layers a productive use atop entombed waste-green on brown. The sale of electricity from solar energy production could net a municipal landfill owner hundreds of thousands of dollars in new annual revenue.
EPA encourages solar development of landfills and brownfield property through its Re-Powering America’s Land Initiative program, which educates and advocates stakeholders on the positive benefits of making brightfields out of brownfields. Traditional solar developers prefer sites that are closed and have a final remedy in place, with limited or no ongoing regulatory requirements. Properties with open incidents or incomplete remediation can delay build-out and slow down solar developers who prefer to move quickly and not deal with extraneous, non-solar concerns. But a growing number of developers are willing to come in early and be patient for the right development on the right real estate. For owners of contaminated sites, the cost savings captured by remediating a property with a solar energy reuse in mind can be substantial because brightfields are unoccupied and can therefore require a less intensive cleanup and less regulatory and legal liability concern going forward.
The specific characteristics and requirements of a suitable location for solar energy production vary somewhat depending on the technology and developer. In general, the site must have good access for construction and maintenance, no access for pedestrians, and elevation beyond any floodplain. The slope should generally be less than 35 degrees. In the Northern Hemisphere, the aspect should be south facing or horizontal because solar panels located on south-facing slopes will have a higher solar power output than those located on north-facing slopes. The site should receive some minimum amount of solar radiation per year, and any shading should be removable.
Does your site sound like a match? Are you a brownfield owner looking to list your property and connect to solar developers? You can sign up to list for free in a brightfield portfolio dedicated to marketing solar development opportunities. Use the brightfield tag when creating a listing on Brownfield Listings to connect your real estate to the solar community nationwide.