What Does It Take to Develop Utility-Scale Solar Projects?

Constructing a utility-scale solar project requires more than simply buying PV panels and mounting them in a field. It can take years to find the right location, conduct feasibility studies, obtain permits, and align the proverbial stars.

A couple of experts, who have managed multiple projects through the process, were guests on The POWER Podcast. Carl Jackson and Charles Silio, two of the three partners who founded Glidepath Ventures, a company focused on solar project development in PJM and other fast-growing solar markets in North America, provided a high-level overview of the development process and explained what drew them to the PJM market.

“There’s an old saying in solar that every project that actually gets built dies a thousand deaths, and that’s probably accurate,” Jackson said. “A lot of that has to do with all the things that you deal with at the beginning stages of development.”

Jackson earned his stripes by leading project origination and business development for Cypress Creek Renewables, where he worked on solar energy projects in a variety of states. Some of that experience helped inform the partners’ decision to focus on the PJM market, and Pennsylvania in particular.

“One of the reasons we picked Pennsylvania was it’s very close to a lot of load in the competitive PJM market. There are multiple opportunities for corporate or municipal offtake, and a lot of companies, municipalities, and universities—even within the state of Pennsylvania—that have sustainability goals, who are actively looking for renewable power. In addition, it being PJM, you can sell via contract for differences to corporates or other buyers anywhere within PJM. And failing that, if you really want to run a plant merchant, there’s a fairly liquid market for power and for other ancillary services and capacity,” Silio said.

Most people probably don’t think of Pennsylvania as a solar power hotbed, but in some ways that works to Glidepath Ventures’ advantage. There is less competition from other developers, and land is reasonably priced. However, most landowners aren’t particularly well-versed in the benefits that solar power projects can offer.

“You may get some inbound calls from a landowner because their neighbors or friends in that community have had success with a project, but a lot of the areas that we’re targeting, we’re one of the first phones calls that they’re receiving or the first phone call that they’re receiving,” Jackson said. “Most of the time, we’re proactively reaching out to landowners, educating them exactly on what solar is, what the actual economic impact could be for them, and then getting them onboard.”

But there is a fair amount of work done behind the scenes before a landowner is contacted. “We canvas areas to make sure that we have what we anticipate as at least a reasonable opportunity from an electrical perspective to interconnect the type of projects that we actually want to interconnect there. Then, we reach out to landowners,” said Jackson. “We ultimately get a lease option or some sort of lease agreement with those landowners, and then begin the process of entering into PJM, getting an interconnection feasibility study completed, and then working our way through all the studies through PJM, as well as starting the process of getting the requisite entitlements needed to deliver that project.”

Jackson said those steps can take anywhere from 18 to 24 months for projects connecting at 69 kV or higher. For projects connecting at the distribution level (less than 69 kV), the timeline for getting the interconnection agreement from the utility and PJM can be shortened to about 12 months or so. Then, it can take another six months to a year to satisfy all the state and local regulatory requirements before the project is ready to begin construction.

There is some uncertainty throughout the solar industry concerning supply chains. With the world struggling to reduce the spread of COVID-19, it’s fair to expect shipments from China and other parts of the world to be delayed. Jackson and Silio offered their perspective on these new challenges. Listen to The POWER Podcast to hear what they had to say.

Follow the links below to subscribe via your favorite platform:


For more power podcasts, visit The POWER Podcast archives.

Aaron Larson is POWER’s executive editor (@AaronL_Power, @POWERmagazine).

SHARE this article