Planning and zoning for solar in Michigan

The economics of solar have never been better and individuals, businesses, utilities and cooperatives are planning projects all over Michigan. Is your community ready?

For decorative purposes.
A community solar project by a Michigan municipal utility. Photo by Brad Neumann, MSU Extension.

In fall 2016, the Michigan Legislature amended the Clean and Renewable Energy and Energy Waste Reduction Act (Public Act 295 of 2008) with passage of Public Act 342, setting the goal that 35 percent of the state’s electric needs will be met through a combination of energy waste reduction and renewable energy by 2025. Additionally, since 2010, there has been a 64 percent, 69 percent, and 82 percent reduction in the cost of residential, commercial-rooftop, and utility-scale solar energy photovoltaic systems, respectively, according to the National Renewable Energy Lab.

Given this context, there is a role and responsibility for local governments in enabling installation of solar energy generation and even incentivizing its use. There are two basic mechanisms through which local governments in Michigan can accomplish this: the master plan and the zoning ordinance.

The master plan sets a community vision for the future with goals, objectives and specific policies to make that vision a reality. The community master plan is the policy document where a community would detail the path to reaching its future vision for solar energy in the jurisdiction. The master plan accomplishes this by taking account of the solar resource in the community and, more importantly, assessing the areas of the community that are most appropriate for solar energy development. For instance, utility-scale solar energy development may not be appropriate in productive agricultural areas. Instead, the planning process should include analysis to identify those ‘marginal lands’ that have fewer competing land uses where solar might be more appropriate.

With the vision, goals and policies established in the master plan through broad public engagement, it is the zoning ordinance (and possibly other development regulations) that sets the legal standards (and possibly incentives) for public and private entities when siting and building solar energy systems.

Michigan local governments are seeing increased activity among solar energy developers exploring options for solar energy generation and many communities need to start the planning process to ready their jurisdiction.

Michigan State University Extension developed a resource, “Planning & Zoning for Solar Energy Systems: A Guide for Michigan Local Governments,” to help communities meet the challenge of becoming solar-ready by addressing solar energy systems within planning policies and zoning regulations. The guide includes practical information for local government officials, including:

  • Background and context for solar energy development in Michigan;
  • Intended purpose and use of the guide to inform local government discretion;
  • State of solar energy siting and development in Michigan;
  • The different scales and components of solar energy systems;
  • Land use considerations when planning and drafting zoning regulations for solar energy, including application across the rural to urban transect, and considerations for dual use solar energy development; and
  • Sample zoning language for solar energy systems.

For more information, download a copy of “Planning & Zoning for Solar Energy Systems: A Guide for Michigan Local Governments” and view the companion, “Planning and Zoning for Solar Energy Systems Webinar.”

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