While solar and wind generation technology has been around for decades, it is only in recent years that economic and societal factors have aligned to trigger exponential growth. For example, the worldwide installed capacity of solar power reached 1 terawatt (TW) earlier this year, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA). Power generation from solar PV increased by a record 179 TWh in 2021, marking 22 % growth on 2020. However, average annual generation growth of 25% in the period 2022-2030 is needed to follow the Net Zero Emissions by 2050 Scenario. This corresponds to a more than threefold increase in annual capacity deployment until 2030
With so much growth in a relatively short period of time, certain historical development inefficiencies still exist. One of these difficulties is site selection, which is the process of finding ideal land and evaluating different constraints and opportunities for specific land plots.
What makes a good site
Given that the renewable energy industry is relatively young, there still is not a singular, detailed best practice for site selection. However, there are many consistent high-level activities that most developers perform.
While it seems reasonable to assume that a solar array could be built anywhere that there is space, this is not the case. Prospective land parcels must meet a variety of environmental criteria in order to be suitable. For example, here are a few of the common requirements:
- Avoid floodways and significant flood risk zones
- Avoid wetlands
- Avoid native grasslands
- Proper zoning requirements
- Minimal topographical incline
Of course, the most important environmental factor is the availability of sun or wind resources. There must be enough output from the system to make the site financially viable.
It is also necessary to select a substation for grid connection. Substations must meet voltage constraints, be within several kilometers of the development site and have connection availability for new linkages. If any of these constraints are not met, it can make a project infeasible or significantly increase its cost.
Still an inefficient process
Clearly, lots of information is needed to determine site viability, but this data is, at best, disparate and, at worst, non-existent, which creates significant inefficiencies.
During the early years of the modern renewable development industry, site selection was almost wholly manual. It often required analysts to literally drive around regions of interest following power lines to find substations. From there, they would dig into county property records looking for nearby land, and environmental data availability was minimal.
Luckily, site selection has become easier with the utilization of software, but there is still significant opportunity for improvement. The advancement of tools such as Google Earth, GIS data layers and other mapping technologies allow developers to more rapidly analyze overarching environmental constraints in regions of interest.
However, even with better data availability, these resources are scattered across a wide variety of systems, applications and providers. Developers spend significant time simply tracking down datasets for regions of interest. Once again, this takes manual effort that slows projects and increases their costs.
How site selection could be improved
Site selection processes could be significantly improved with increased accessibility to digitized datasets. Easier access to national environmental overlays and automated technical analysis would provide significant efficiencies to the industry. While many developers currently consider their data accessibility to be a competitive advantage, democratizing this information would help the industry as a whole take dramatic steps forward.
Unfortunately, this would take buy-in from utilities, governmental entities and data providers, making it unrealistic in the immediate term. As such, software companies are sprouting up to consolidate the vast amounts of currently disparate data. However, this industry is still young and fragmented. Each tool has its own set of deficiencies such as lacking environmental data, technical analysis, automated filtering, buildable area analysis and layout design. However, Enernite are making progress to meet this need by building an end-to-end platform for early-phase planning.
Without this kind of tools, developers must manually locate necessary data sources. This information is spread across many different websites and data providers, as well as government organizations and utilities. Manually acquiring and consolidating this information requires significant human capital investment; however, software platforms automate this entire process as they come loaded with relevant, consolidated data.
Ultimately, the renewable energy industry is experiencing unprecedented expansion, but inefficiencies driven by outdated processes are holding it back from faster growth. As the supply of obvious development opportunities decreases, site selection methodologies need to be optimized to maintain the industry’s current growth trends.