Planning and zoning guide for solar energy systems available for local officials and landowners

Guide will help Michigan communities meet the challenge of becoming solar-ready by addressing solar energy systems within planning policies and zoning regulations.

Solar panels in field with pollinator garden.
Ground-mounted SES with pollinator garden. Photo by Rob Davis.

Michigan State University (MSU) Extension, in partnership with the MSU School of Planning, Design and Construction, and the University of Michigan Graham Sustainability Institute, announce the release of Planning & Zoning for Solar Energy Systems: A Guide for Michigan Local Governments. This new, truly unique resource will help Michigan communities meet the challenge of becoming solar-ready by offering best practice guidance for addressing solar energy systems (SES) within their planning policies and zoning regulations.

“In our work with communities, we’ve come to recognize that those without zoning for renewable energy are at a distinct and worsening disadvantage,” said Brad Neumann, senior educator at MSU Extension, who co-authored the report. “Zoning allows communities to choose proactively the role of renewable energy developments. Without it, communities increasingly find themselves reacting to individual proposals from developers instead of thinking big-picture about the vision for their future.”

The guide was developed by experts within MSU Extension and the MSU School of Planning, Design and Construction, plus faculty of the University of Michigan Graham Sustainability Institute. Further review was completed by content experts from local units of government, legal counsel, energy-related non-profits, utility experts, and members of academia. The guide was developed with partial support from the Department of Energy and the Michigan Office of Climate and Energy under Award Number EE00007478.

“EGLE is pleased to support this important work on zoning for solar energy,” said Julie Staveland, Sustainability Section Manager, Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE). “Our state has aggressive goals to fight climate change, for the good of our citizens and our environment. Through this guide and other EGLE resources, the state works to level the playing field for all municipalities and empower local governments of all sizes to advance decarbonization in their communities.”

“We know electric utilities are pursuing more renewable sources of generation,” said Neumann. “On top of that, specific sectors of our economy are rapidly moving towards electrification, like the transportation sector, and solar energy systems will become increasingly used for home charging and at places of business for electric vehicles. For these reasons, the Planning & Zoning for SES Guide will be a helpful resource for almost all local governments—from the most rural where our dual-use concept likely applies, to more urban communities where installation of rooftop solar energy systems will modify the skyline.”

The resource is tailored to Michigan local governments, but will also be useful to homeowners, landowners, and solar energy developers. For instance, homeowners or business owners located in communities without zoning provisions for SES can share the sample provisions with their local government officials and apply for a zoning amendment. For landowners wishing to develop SES on their property while keeping the land in a productive agricultural use, they could benefit from the concept of dual-use SES.  

“Dual-use lies at the heart of making solar compatible with agriculture,” said Charles Gould, an educator with MSU Extension, who also co-authored the report. Gould explains, “Dual-use is where one or more land management and conservation practices, such as crop production, grazing, pollinator habitat, and conservation cover, are used throughout the project site to achieve community goals such as resiliency, economic development, farmland preservation, climate action, and energy generation.”

In so doing, the guide offers communities, landowners, and solar developers a strategic path forward in meeting the renewable energy needs of the future, keeping land in a beneficial agricultural use, mitigating the impacts of climate change, and protecting the interests of residents and communities.

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