Cutting Red Tape for Green Energy: How Can the Federal Government Lower Legal Hurdles for Solar Farms?

Amid renewed investment in solar energy generation, a new paper identifies the legal barriers to utility-scale solar projects and possible solutions to streamline the process.


May 11, 2021

News Type

Press Release

A new study from Resources for the Future (RFF) finds that the formal federal permitting process for new utility-scale solar farms can take up to two years, creating significant—but not insurmountable—barriers to utility sector decarbonization.

Using a sample of utility-scale solar projects in 21 states, the paper describes the experience projects have with federal permitting processes, as well as potential hurdles between announcing a project and breaking ground.

The research focuses on case studies that sought approval under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) to begin construction from 2008 to 2019. NEPA, passed in 1970, requires federal agencies to assess the environmental impact of their proposed action before making a decision. Out of the 20 projects requiring NEPA review, 11 required a full review process that took one to two years. The remaining nine projects underwent a less rigorous review process that took roughly six to nine months to complete, ending with a “Finding of No Significant Impact.”

Many of the projects also required permits from several agencies, such as the Fish and Wildlife Service and the US Army Corps of Engineers.

“The federal government has a number of review points to make sure that potential solar projects don’t harm wildlife, cultural resources, or our land and water. It’s a necessary process,” said Arthur Fraas, lead author and RFF visiting fellow. “While the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, and other key legislation provide important protections that need to be considered before constructing solar farms, there are also opportunities to streamline the process. This is especially important as solar is a key element in the United States’ decarbonization goals.”

While costs have dropped roughly 90 percent since 2009, the Department of Energy has stated that solar energy will need to be installed as much as five times faster to meet the Biden administration’s goal of a 100 percent clean electricity grid by 2035.

Identifying ways to speed up the permitting process is critical. The paper offers several suggestions for improving the current system:

  • Proactively identify land where solar farms would have minimal impacts. Federal agencies could speed up the review process by identifying areas where utility-scale solar energy plants would have minimal impact on the environment.
  • Designate new solar energy zones (SEZs) in which projects would be eligible for expedited review. SEZs are part of a major initiative to promote solar projects under Bureau of Land Management jurisdiction. Creating more SEZs in new places could aid development and result in shorter federal review periods for projects on public lands.
  • Utilize Superfund and brownfield sites for renewable energy development. Not only does this return impaired land to productive use, but the sites are attractive because a solar farm is unlikely to have further environmental repercussions. Four of the projects are located on Superfund sites.

For more, read “Establishing Utility-Scale Solar Projects: Federal Involvement” by RFF Visiting Fellow Arthur Fraas and Louisiana State University Paul M. Hebert Law Center students Valkyrie Buffa and Lindsay Rich.

Resources for the Future (RFF) is an independent, nonprofit research institution in Washington, DC. Its mission is to improve environmental, energy, and natural resource decisions through impartial economic research and policy engagement. RFF is committed to being the most widely trusted source of research insights and policy solutions leading to a healthy environment and a thriving economy.

Unless otherwise stated, the views expressed here are those of the individual authors and may differ from those of other RFF experts, its officers, or its directors. RFF does not take positions on specific legislative proposals.

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