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Using GIS Technology to Find Solar Development Sites

Nate Sylvester, GISP | November 28, 2016

Like seekers of hidden treasure in ages past, developers of utility-scale solar electric generation facilities are in a race these days to find the optimal places to install arrays of solar panels. Today, instead of X marking the spot, GIS technology marks the spot – powerful Geographic Information Systems mapping tools that can rapidly, efficiently, and effectively identify the most feasible locations for solar power and slash the time needed to bring projects online.

In looking for solar locations, project developers must check off a list of attributes to make the project viable and affordable. Developers need sites that are:

  • Large, relatively flat, non-forested upland.
  • Close to existing utility substations and transmission lines that can receive the power generated by the proposed development, without a significant cost to upgrade.
  • Not within, or adjacent to:
    • Sensitive habitats
    • 100-year-flood zones
    • Conservation lands
    • Or known cultural resource sites

Up until a few years ago, finding suitable locations could take days, or even weeks, requiring specialists to pore over multiple types of maps to identify ideal placements. If any of the maps were out of date, clients risked unpleasant surprises about just what they would be able to build, how rapidly, and with what level of regulatory review.

Today, experienced GIS professionals at TRC know the best sources of information needed to find sites are often live map services, backed up by multiple databases. TRC uses sophisticated analysis techniques to distill all of this information, make it easy to use and make it available through an interactive webmap helping clients find desirable locations in a matter of hours, rather than days or weeks.

For a client seeking a solar location in a specific vicinity, the first step is to apply GIS to identify and eliminate all the areas that fail to meet the criteria: Areas more than two miles away from utility infrastructure, wetlands, excessively hilly or forested terrain, sensitive habitat areas, flood zones, conserved lands, etc. Through web-based tools, we can quickly add in information from the National Wetlands Inventory, National Flood Hazard Layer, Protected Lands of the U.S., the Environmental Protection Agency’s Facility Registry Service, utility infrastructure maps, zoning maps, and other sources. Unlike working with printed maps in the past, these databases are constantly updated with the most reliable and timely information. As each new layer of information is applied to the map, more and more areas will be ruled out, and what will quickly become revealed are the areas that best meet the project developer’s site criteria.

It’s important to note, however, the webmap is only as good as the information being loaded into it and the skill and experience of the GIS professional overseeing the process. That includes understanding which information matters most.  As an example, one of the best ways to find optimal sites quickly and avoid wasting time on fruitless analysis is to filter candidate locations based on interconnection suitability. This sort of evaluation requires systems studies and planning services – something that for a GIS professional at TRC can be as simple as reaching out to an engineer right down the hall. All under one roof, we have the expertise to work on culling out any substations that are not suitable for interconnection at the front end so we can focus our efforts, and clients’ time, on only suitable substations. GIS professionals at TRC also have access to experienced and knowledgeable permitting staff which can be helpful if special preservation zones or habitats are uncovered and assessments are needed to determine their impact on solar development.

For utility-scale solar developers, we’re eager to work as your partners in rapidly finding the best sites for your projects. Using abundant GIS data, powerful technology like webmaps and live map services, and instant access to smart TRC people from multiple disciplines, we can help ensure there are no surprises in site conditions when the time comes to build – and help you beat your competition in the race to meet the constant demand to bring more solar power to the grid.

Please see our blogs on Solar on Brownfields and Solar on Landfills for related information.

Nate Sylvester, GISP

Nate Sylvester has over 12 years of experience managing GIS systems in the environmental consulting field and extensive experience working with clients to develop solutions for acquisition, management and analysis of geographic data for large projects. Project types include: electric transmission and gas pipeline permitting and construction, solar development siting and permitting, wind farm permitting and construction, site remediation, and FERC hydroelectric project licensing drawings. 

Nate is an expert in applying today’s GIS technology to all phases of a project, from the early planning stages all the way through post-construction monitoring. Nate holds a B.A. in Environmental Science from the University of Maine at Farmington, and a Post Baccalaureate Certificate in Geographic Information Systems from Penn State University. Nate is a Certified Geographic Information Systems Professional (GISP) and serves as the National GIS Coordinator at TRC. Contact him at

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