Environmental Permitting Tips for Renewable Energy Sites

Success of a renewable energy project often starts with meeting stringent, complex environmental permitting and mitigation requirements.
Dudek’s David Hochart, an environmental permitting specialist with expertise in California renewable energy sites, outlines below how a successful environmental permitting process begins with an effective due diligence plan:

Environmental due diligence should be completed prior to substantial investment or signing a power purchase agreement. Due diligence also can identify early whether a given site is potentially constrained by permitting and mitigation requirements that could prevent the short-turnaround development schedules common in renewable energy development projects.

A three-step, decision-making process will allow a project proponent to evaluate risk effectively when considering a particular site or comparing several sites for development.

Step 1 – Due Diligence
First, identify environmental resources present or likely to be present at a site. Then, identify potential issues that could extend the permit-processing schedule and/or require significant and sometimes unanticipated mitigation costs.

Public data may be available that will provide a good preliminary understanding of site conditions during the initial due-diligence phase and, if extensive, will save time and money compared with completing comprehensive surveys up front. Mapping environmental resources using geographic information system (GIS) technology allows a “desktop review” of valuable information to be gathered at minimal cost.

At a minimum, public resources that should be reviewed first include Federal Emergency Management Agency floodplains; the California Natural Diversity Database; vegetation communities; critical habitat areas; general plan land-use designations and zoning; recorded archaeological and historical sites; and U.S. Geological Survey soils, faults, and liquefaction maps.

An experienced biologist should then survey the site (generally 1 to 3 days) to verify whether information from the “desktop review” is consistent with current site conditions. For example, a Dudek biologist recently surveyed an 8,000-acre Southern California site in 3 days to verify information gathered through the public database search.

On that project, the field verification determined that the site’s habitat would not support several species preliminarily identified as likely to be present, thus substantially reducing the need for costly focused surveys and associated mitigation. The data collected also can be used for early outreach efforts to establish negotiations with the various resource agencies.

Step 2 – Site Characterization Study
The initial due-diligence data are compiled into a site characterization study summarizing key findings. This is an important aid for both managing risk and developing a project-processing strategy. A site characterization study should, at a minimum, address the following elements:

  • Environmental resources present or likely to be present at the site
  • Anticipated permitting schedule per a worst-case and best-case scenario
  • Areas most and least constrained for development
  • Design considerations to meet permitting agencies’ regulations and guidelines
  • Mitigation costs and feasibility
  • Status of other renewable projects in the area
  • Conditions of approval for other nearby projects
  • Project consistency and/or potential inconsistency with applicable plans and policies

A permit matrix is a powerful tool to determine how permitting and required surveys will most efficiently fit into the desired development schedule. The permit matrix lists all required permits based on resources present and the anticipated processing schedule for obtaining each permit.

The permit matrix also identifies the environmental surveys and associated seasonal restrictions for completing the surveys. Mitigation requirements are also listed in the permit matrix if a resource is present on site during focused surveys. The permit matrix facilitates the weighing of time and costs for various permit processing, including whether to avoid a resource (if feasible) during site planning efforts.

A site constraints map provides another tool to help evaluate project feasibility. The map provides a user-friendly summary of “non-developable” versus “most desirable” development areas:

  • Non-developable areas are characterized by the presence of resources that may limit the development’s footprint, such as wetlands, archaeological sites, protected species’ critical habitat areas, and noise restrictions.
  • Most desirable development areas include lands where no sensitive environmental resources are present or likely to be present or lands that require minimal mitigation.

In Step 2, it is important to evaluate your project in relation to other renewable energy projects’ plans and policies that have been processed or are being processed in the vicinity. Other projects have set the current standard and will provide valuable insight for successful processing, including potential inconsistencies with both adopted plans and plans being drafted or revised.

For example, the recently distributed U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Draft Land-Based Wind Energy Guidelines (USFWS guidelines) (2011) state that the developer shall demonstrate how the recommendations of the draft guidelines were considered throughout the project-planning process.

Evaluating the project’s due-diligence efforts in relation to the draft USFWS guidelines provides a project record that clearly identifies the siting efforts considered early in the development stages. This information should be included in the site characterization study.

Early outreach to the permitting agencies, the lead agency, wildlife agencies, tribes, and local community groups is always a good policy. Outreach does not have to be extensive at this stage; however, it will likely provide initial feedback about any permitting delays that may result. Early outreach also provides an opportunity to verify whether any additional permits would be required and whether the schedule that has been developed is consistent with the permitting agency expectations.

Finally, a biological work plan should be presented to the wildlife agencies as part of the outreach effort to obtain initial feedback about the survey methods and to gain a better understanding of likely project-processing requirements.

Step 3 – Go vs. No Go Decision
With due-diligence completed and a site characterization study prepared, they provide a wealth of information related to environmental permitting requirements, allowing an educated, environmental permit-processing evaluation for an individual site or a comparison/rating of multiple sites.

It is important to consider practically the environmental resources identified for each site on a cumulative level with regard to increased processing time and mitigation costs. Additionally, biological survey schedules for each site should be carefully considered. Biological surveys required for one site versus another, based on the resources present, will include seasonal restrictions that will affect the project schedule. Remember the permit matrix described in Step 2? By completing that step, a project proponent will know the survey methods and associated time frame as they relate to the overall development schedule.

This three-step process makes best use of the due-diligence phase when considering renewable energy development at a given site or when comparing several sites. The key is to complete a focused due-diligence effort that provides the information needed to make informed decisions. It is also important to ensure that the level of due-diligence efforts is directly proportional to the environmental resources present at a given site.