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How Integrating Social and Environmental Data Speeds Up Solar Development

In the race to take advantage of optimal financial conditions to develop solar farms, site selection criteria are often inadequately assessed or not properly integrated into overall site acquisition decision making processes.

How Integrating Social and Environmental Data Speeds Up Solar Development

In the second of a two-part series on solar site selection, we review the opportunity advanced data tools and comprehensive engineering, environmental and commercial expertise bring to overall project lifecycle success.

Getting projects right-from-the-start is the time-tested formula to successful project outcomes, regardless of the field where it is applied. When it comes to solar photovoltaic (PV) project development, the site selection process seems like a relatively straight forward proposition at first. Decisions made at this early stage, however, impact everything from development costs and construction schedule to the resilience of the facility and the project’s long-term financial performance.

The site selection, acquisition and preparation processes are stacked with multiple variables. These processes benefit from alignment with the risk appetite of the developer as well as interpretation from a range of technical, regulatory, environmental, construction and operational specialists. Developers who call upon integrated and holistic planning methodologies tend to achieve better outcomes; we often find a reluctance to adopt such an approach because of misperceptions that such processes are superfluous or will hold up the development progress.


Scaling with Data

On the contrary, thanks to advances in tools and access to multiple data sources, in many ways accelerated by the remote working constraints of the COVID-19 pandemic, solutions are now available that add scale, speed and improved accuracy to environmental, social, technical and commercial assessments of land parcels.

Using data from geographic information systems (GIS) tools, desktop research, online resources, conceptual design considerations as well as actual (and even remote) site reconnaissance, teams of regulatory professionals, engineers, GIS specialists, land acquisition professionals, biologists and even archaeologists can quickly identify, analyze and weigh a range of interrelated site issues before capital decisions are made.

Black & Veatch has been applying this rigor to land selection and acquisition for power plants, transmission lines and telecommunications infrastructure for decades, providing complete in-house solutions for clients that extend right through the project’s development. Even greater efficiencies are now being applied by these project teams given the advances in digital capabilities and the ever-increasing access to GIS-based analytics.

For example, Black & Veatch recently screened literally dozens of land parcels concurrently across an entire state for our own project development arm, Diode Ventures. Over a dozen sites were identified – quickly and efficiently – that met or exceeded a range of multifaceted criteria. These, in turn, were analyzed and evaluated in-depth to select the top sites that aligned closest with the client’s unique development and financial priorities.

Our historical data shows us that these digital advances are taking weeks off the typical site selection decision-making process and saving developers time and money.

Faster and more accurately than ever before we can assess land availability, topography, proximities to transport networks, existing substations and transmissions lines and population centers, designated scenic, natural, recreational or wildlife areas, and cultural and historical areas. Global horizontal irradiance – based on direct beam, diffuse horizontal irradiance and ground reflected radiation – can be calculated leading to assumptions on potential solar yield.

Data on natural disasters, wetlands and waterways, flood potential, seismic activity, existing oil and gas infrastructure, proximity to airport (i.e. glare risks), parcel ownership details, potential for hazardous material contamination, steel and concrete soil corrosivity ratings, documented threatened and endangered species, local regulatory restrictions/prohibitions, and so much more can all be integrated into a site selection model and weighted accordingly per importance to the client.

Further analytical tools can be used to compare the rate of production and cost of development factoring in capital costs, operation and maintenance costs, land costs, depreciation, income taxes, debt service, and again so much more. Generally speaking, the only limiting factor is to make sure the right expertise is available to translate the data into actionable information for the developer.

All this comes together to make site selection and acquisition more comprehensive, agile, repeatable, and defendable than ever before. As more solar development continues at a fast pace and matures throughout the United States, regulatory conditions also evolve in response. State and local regulators are learning from previous solar projects and adjusting their development regulations appropriately. For example, we are aware of one developer who purchased land only to subsequently learn that the county no longer allows solar PV developments greater than 50 megawatts.

In today’s world, better decisions about site selection can now take days instead of weeks. Bringing in more diverse data and expertise means projects are right-sized from the beginning and can be applied throughout the lifecycle of the project from the conception and site acquisition right through the design, construction and operation of the facility.

Talk to Black & Veatch to learn how our diverse and in-depth expertise can help at every stage of the solar infrastructure lifecycle leading to more efficient, resilient and cost-effective outcomes.

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