Federal Solar Permitting Process (FD)
The steps of the Federal solar permitting process are summarized in the chart below. Roll over each section for a summary of the regulations and permits it covers. Click a section to learn more about the required permits and regulations related to that topic.
Choose a Process Topic
Federal Regulations and Permits for Solar Development
Federal land management agencies often have authority to allow development on federal land. For solar facilities the land managing agency will generally grant access to the land via a right-of-way (ROW) rather than a lease. The use of the land must conform to the Land Use Plan (LUP) that has been established by the agency, and if it does not, a revision or amendment of the plan may be required. The managing agency will be required to perform a National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) analysis before issuing the ROW. In addition, land management agencies will often condition the ROW on the procurement of all other permits required for the construction of the facility.
It should be noted that some agencies have developed programs tailored specifically to solar development on federal land. In some cases, the agencies have developed a Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement that can be used to shorten the NEPA process. In others, the managing agency has developed a series of policies that are designed to streamline solar ROW applications. The relevant managing agency should be contacted for more information regarding the solar ROW application process.
Land Use Planning
Solar projects on federal land must be consistent with the applicable Land Use Plan (LUP). Most federal lands are managed either by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) or the United States Forest Service (USFS). The BLM’s land use planning authority is found in the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 (FLPMA) and many other public laws. FLPMA requires the BLM to develop and maintain LUPs called Resource Management Plans (RMPs) that cover individual planning units. The USFS’ land use planning authority is found in the National Forest Management Act of 1976. The LUPs, called Land Management Plans (LMPs), are prepared and implemented for each National Forest.
Siting a solar utility project on federal land requires permission from the managing agency. As stated above, federal land managing agencies will generally grant permission for utility-scale solar development in the form of a ROW. A ROW can be any legal instrument that authorizes a holder to use and/or occupy federal land under a grant. Most land management agencies have general regulations governing applications for a ROW, and some agencies have also promulgated specific procedures that relate specifically to solar development.
A NEPA analysis will usually have to be performed before the ROW can be issued. The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) established policy and goals for the protection, maintenance, and enhancement of the environment and outlines the process for implementing these goals within federal agencies. Projects that involve a "major federal action" trigger the NEPA process. Issuing a ROW on federal land generally requires a NEPA analysis.
In some cases, the land management agency will develop Programmatic Environmental Impact Statements which can be used to shorten and streamline the NEPA process. For example, the BLM has developed a Solar Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (SPEIS) for six southwestern states. The SPEIS provides NEPA analysis that can be applied to ROW applications and also outlines the BLM’s solar ROW application process and policies.
In addition, some agencies charge varying fees depending on whether the solar facility is producing energy. For example, the BLM rental schedule for utility-scale solar ROWs consists of two components. The first component is an annual, per acre base rental fee. The fee is based on the value of the land subject to the ROW. The initial base rent is due upon the issuance of the ROW. The second component is a megawatt (MW) capacity fee. The MW capacity fee is charged on an annual basis, starting when the facility begins producing electricity. The MW capacity fee is implemented over five years after the start of electrical generation to allow for diligent testing and operation, with the fee increasing by 20% each year.
Developers seeking to construct a utility-scale solar facility on federal lands must obtain a ROW or lease and all other necessary permits. Developers may choose to seek status as a Qualifying Facility under the Public Utilities Regulatory Act (PURPA). Qualifying Facility (QF) status allows the developers to sell energy or capacity to a utility, to purchase certain services from utilities, and provides relief from certain regulatory burdens. Developers may also qualify as Exempt Wholesale Generators if they are independent power producers that exclusively sell energy to wholesale customers and complete the self-certification process overseen by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). Obtaining EWG status can exempt the generator from certain reporting and accounting regulations under the Energy Policy Act of 2005 and allows the generator to sell power at market-based rates.