Opinion: Getting smart on solar is a plus for communities

Atlanta is transitioning to 100 percent clean energy. A solar module manufacturing facility is set to open in Dalton. Facebook and Walton Electric Membership Corp. are pairing up to power a 150-megawatt data center in Newton with solar. And every other week a Georgia county like Columbia approves a new solar farm.

Many are shocked to learn Georgia is a top solar producer. Hearing about all these projects makes it less surprising. This year, the Solar Energy Industry Association (SEIA) ranked Georgia 10th in solar nationwide, up from 22nd in 2017. And SEIA projects this ranking will continue to rise. That’s what happens when you’re the third-fastest growing generator in the U.S. Georgia has even managed to continue adding new jobs to the industry when tariffs should be slowing things down.

But don’t be fooled. What tariffs can’t achieve, misinformation and poorly planned projects may be able to. We’re started down the right path in Georgia. But to make sure we don’t get misdirected, clear land use standards and good information about solar development are necessary. The Georgia Model Solar Zoning Ordinance we just published paves the way.

We’ve spoken to interested parties from all over the state about solar development. They’re excited. But they’re also nervous, and understandably so. It’s a big pivot to ask people to make. One day the production of energy is isolated in discrete parts of the state; the next, someone wants to install it in your neighborhood.

We’ve already seen communities push back against solar development planned in inappropriate locations. The question is what comes next. Georgia has three options.

  • One, Georgia can reject new solar development: giving up the lead in the industry, shutting down businesses, and continuing to dirty the air with fossil fuels.

  • Two, Georgia can build, build, build: inundating the state with any and all solar development, and creating an industrial landscape where farms, forests, and communities once flourished.
  • Or, three, Georgians can demand smart solar siting: growing the industry, boosting local economies, and still protecting what makes the state special. Smart solar siting achieves the right balance between encouraging solar development and protecting local community culture and resources.

Choosing option three is easy. What’s more difficult is determining where, in any given community, the best locations to site solar exist. That’s where land use standards and zoning ordinances come in. They provide the information needed to properly site solar development. Georgia’s counties and cities are desperate for this information. So desperate that one county adopted land use standards designed for solar facilities in Utah. Right idea, wrong state. Georgia’s a unique place, and smart siting here is going to be different than anywhere else.

To fill this information gap, representatives from Emory University Law School, Georgia Institute of Technology, and University of Georgia brought their respective expertise together and published the Georgia Model Solar Zoning Ordinance and accompanying educational guide.

We wanted to make the best data readily available, and we wanted to tailor it to Georgia’s specific needs. Counties and cities now have a Georgia-specific tool to start adopting their own informed standards of where and how solar development should occur in their communities.

There’s always the argument that any regulation is bad regulation. And it’s true that not every community needs standards for solar development. Solar energy shouldn’t be treated any differently than other types of industry. If a county or city doesn’t already have general land use standards, it shouldn’t adopt some just for the sake of solar.

But most jurisdictions in Georgia do regulate land use. Adopting solar-specific standards in these jurisdictions can ensure land use requirements make sense for solar development, rather than trying to fit rules for old industry onto the technology of the future.

Adopting land use standards also gets ahead of potential conflict. Communities can agree to new solar proposals with the comfort that they are making an informed decision; industry can move forward with projects with a concrete understanding of the community’s expectations.

Georgia may be running down the right path, but it still can get tripped up. If Georgia wants it keep up the pace, it has to get smart.

Caroline Reiser, Fellow, and Mindy Goldstein, Director, Turner Environmental Law Clinic at Emory University Law School.