Utility Scale Solar Energy Planning Guidance Recommendations
Future Analytics Consulting has completed a research project, funded by the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland under its Research Development and Demonstration (RDD) funding stream, to develop planning guidance recommendations for utility scale solar photovoltaic (USSPV) schemes in Ireland*.
At present, there is no specific planning policy guidance which considers the development implications of solar energy developments in an Irish context. The absence of guidance is an issue for planning authorities, the development sector and local communities and is a risk as it introduces uncertainty to the planning system in terms of how applications for this type of development will be considered, consistently, on a scheme-by-scheme basis.
Over 100 applications for USSPV have been lodged with planning authorities as of November 3rd 2016. The statistics below outline the status of these applications:
- Granted (Local Authority): 33
- Granted (An Bord Pleanála): 3
- Refused (Local Authority): 8
- Further Information Requested: 30
- Decision Pending (Local Authority): 29
- Live Appeals (3rd Party vs. Grant): 3
- Live Appeals (1st Party vs. Refusal): 2
- Invalidated (Local Authority): 21
- Deemed Withdrawn: 3
Applications have been granted planning permission, are under determination/or on appeal for an estimated 725 Megawatts (MW) of solar PV generation potential. The combined site area for these schemes is 1625.29 hectares, up from 593.7 MW (1331.9ha) at the beginning of October 2016.
At the beginning of the research, it was clear that the existing planning system is returning decisions on schemes which fully consider the planning and development impact of USSPV development. However, consideration of the planning pipeline and anecdotal evidence from key stakeholders in the development sector and planning authorities revealed that a number of areas warranted further exploration in the context of developing recommendation for planning guidance which could be operationalised either through specific Section 28 planning guidance or by a Circular from the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government. In order to draft evidence-based and practice tested planning guidance recommendations for the solar energy sector, an adaptive multi-stage methodology was employed.
The first stage of this methodology consisted of a thorough review of planning practice in relation to the development impacts of USSPV schemes. The jurisdictions were selected based on a number of criteria, such as the level of technology installed in addition and the compatibility of planning practices in those areas for transposition into an Irish context. This analysis was undertaken by reviewing planning practice and guidance documents from these jurisdictions and was supplemented through the interrogation of academic material sourced through the ‘Science Direct’ e-journal database.
The second stage of the methodology consisted of an in-depth evaluation of the planning pipeline of USSPV projects which have been lodged with planning authorities for consideration in an Irish context. The list of planning applications reviewed is appended to this report (Appendix A). Through the study of these applications, a range of recommendation areas were devised which were key to the third stage of the methodology. This involved consultation with identified key stakeholders who were identified from the public, private and ‘third’ sector and were thus consulted with to explore the recommendation areas and for their insights into the manner in which the planning system should engage with applications for USSPV. The final stage integrated the overall research process and appropriate recommendations were drafted and structured in line with the functions of the Irish planning and development system.
Ultimately, this research identified the recommendations below, which could contribute to informing any future planning and development guidance for USSPV schemes. The recommendations have been categorised under the following headings:
Forward Planning recommendations;
Development Management Recommendations; and,
The outputs of this research will be submitted to the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government and the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment as it may inform the development of any future planning guidance for USSPV.
Forward Planning Recommendations
Recommendation No. 1
It is recommended that USSPV energy developments be explicitly referenced in the National Planning Framework as a potential key component of Ireland’s energy transition to a ‘low carbon’ society.
Recommendation No. 2
It is recommended that USSPV energy developments be explicitly referenced in the Regional Spatial and Economic Strategy for the regional assembly areas as a potential key component of Ireland’s energy transition to a ‘low carbon’ society.
Recommendation No. 3
It is recommended that county development plans set out policy and objectives to support USSPV development and put in place development management standards to control development in line with the recommendations below.
Recommendation No. 4
It is strongly recommended that county development plans do not adopt development policy objectives which unduly restrict USSPV energy development. It is, however, recommended that plans identify the type of location where such development is particularly suited, i.e.
Rural Brownfield (e.g. cutaway bog);
Urban Brownfield (e.g. former landfill sites);
Topographically assimilative and screening rich landscapes;
Proximity to a 38kv or 110kv substation/line; and,
Areas of low biodiversity value.
Recommendation No. 5
It is recommended that planning authorities do not set out development policy that prioritises the delivery of development of USSPV on lands with lower agricultural value.
Recommendation No. 6
It is recommended that planning authorities maintain a GIS based database of all USSPV schemes, together with relevant other schemes, including wind farms to assist in identifying cumulative effects.
Development Management Recommendations
Recommendation No. 7
It is recommended that developers carry out community consultation in advance of the lodgement of a planning application to describe the benefits and impacts of the scheme and encourage greater understanding of the development in the community.
Recommendation No. 8
It is recommended that the impact on the landscape be addressed using the following key criteria:
Within a defined radius of the proposal under consideration, a plan showing cumulative ‘zones of visual influence’;
Maps of cumulative zones of visual influence are used to identify appropriate locations for visual impact studies;
Examination of simultaneous visibility assessments;
Sequential effects on visibility occur when an observer moves through a landscape and sees two or more schemes. Common routes through a landscape (e.g. major roads; long distance paths or cycle routes) can be identified as ‘journey scenarios’ and the proposal’s impact on them can be assessed;
Photomontages to show all existing and consented solar farms, and those for which planning applications have been submitted, in addition to the proposal under consideration;
At the most detailed level, description and assessment of cumulative impacts may include the following landscape issues: scale of development in relation to landscape character or designations, sense of distance, existing focal points in the landscape, and sense of remoteness or wildness;
If necessary to undertake a ‘glint and glare’ assessment, including cumulative effects of all existing and consented solar farms.
Recommendation No. 9
It is recommended that a national standard for the undertaking and assessment of geometric glint and glare assessments is developed, in conjunction with the Department of Housing Planning and Local Government, the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Energy, the solar industry, technical experts and other key stakeholders including the community.
Recommendation No. 10
No specific additional recommendation for planning policy is proposed in relation to screening. Additional screening may be required in specific instances, such as proximity to sensitive visual receptors, such as those found in heritage landscapes or areas with scenic landscape qualities.
Recommendation No. 11
It is recommended that the deployment of USSPV shouldn’t be prohibited in undulating landscapes.
Recommendation No. 12
It is recommended that geophysical assessment of proposed USSPV sites should only take place in areas of archaeological potential. Any application for a USSPV scheme should submit an archaeological assessment predicated on a site walk over and desk research of possible archaeological potential on a subject site.
Recommendation No. 13
It is recommended that no specific set back distances are applied from a USSPV scheme to particular receptor. However, schemes should be designed to ensure that impacts at boundaries and sensitive receptors is within acceptable environmental limits.
Recommendation No. 14
It is recommended that the potential impact on drainage patterns is assessed as part of each planning application for USSPV.
Recommendation No. 15
It is recommended that the details of the construction stage are sought as a condition of planning permission, other than where they may raise significant matters that influence the planning decision.
Recommendation No. 16
No specific additional recommendation for planning policy is proposed in relation to site management, operation and maintenance were found to be necessary, albeit there is a need to consider some of the implications associated with the management of USSPC sites and the requisite standards for the maintenance of agricultural land quality on consideration of the site’s eventual return to agricultural use.
Recommendation No. 17
No specific additional recommendation for planning policy is proposed in relation to security. Planning practice in relation to this aspect of site management is considering the need to screening overly obtrusive perimeter fencing and the orientation of CCTV cameras away from residential dwellings in order to preserve amenity.
Recommendation No. 18
It is recommended that a decommissioning statement be included as a standard component of a planning applications for USSPV.
Recommendation No. 19
It is recommended that the planning permission includes a condition permitting the installation of higher efficiency panels (repowering) during the lifetime of a grant of planning permission, as long as the physical characteristics or the planning impacts of the development are not materially different from the original (i.e. reflectivity, sun path tracking etc).
Recommendation No. 20
It is recommended that the Planning and Development Acts and associated regulations should not be amended to include a separate category for mandatory EIA for USSPV development.
Consideration of the need for EIA should continue to be determined on a case-by-case basis with reference to the requirements of Annex III of the EIA Directive.
Recommendation No. 21
It is recommended that the potential role of USSPV in meeting Ireland’s renewable energy requirements is considered through a consideration of its appropriateness as a class of Strategic Infrastructure Development.
Recommendation No. 22
It is recommended that the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government consider extending the exempted development threshold for roof-mounted solar PV on commercial, office and industrial buildings up to 500kw systems.
*The research report which contains the material referenced in this post can be found here
FAC is a leading Chartered Town Planning, Development and Socio-economic Analytics Consultancy based in Dublin with an extensive project portfolio throughout Ireland. FAC has extensive experience in town and village renewal, town and village health checks, and settlement profiling.