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Renewable Energy Exclusion Zones

photograph of solar panels and wind turbines on grassland

As countries worldwide prioritize the shift towards renewable energy sources, landowners have a unique opportunity to contribute significantly to this transition by leasing their land to renewable energy developers. However, just not all portions of a property may not be usable to renewable energy infrastructure installation. These unusable portions of a property are referred to as 'exclusion zones.' In this guide, we will discuss the different exclusion zones as they pertain to leasing land for renewable energy projects.

Types of Exclusion Zones

There are a few different types of exclusion zones that may render portions of a property unusable for renewable energy development. The following exclusion zones are mapped and included in LandGate's free property reports and in our LandApp tool:

1) Topography

'Topography' simply refers to the slope of a property. Areas that are too steep can be unusable for renewable energy development. For example, getting heavy machinery and the materials needed for the construction of solar panels or wind turbines is not possible on properties that are too steep. Similarly, accessing renewable energy infrastructure for maintenance or repairs is complicated by the slope of a property.

LandGate breaks down 4 different topography levels: 5%, 8%, 12%, and 15%. A topography level of 5% is relatively flat, so many renewable energy developers are willing to construct solar panels or wind turbines on land with a 5% topography level without flattening the land. This is the only topography level that is NOT considered a 'true' exclusion zone.

A topography level between 5-8% may still be usable for renewable energy development in some cases, but it depends on the developer and the type of racking that they use. More advanced and expensive racking can handle some slope. Topography levels above 8% are 'true' exclusion zones, and most renewable energy developers will not build infrastructure on properties with a slope of over 8%.

2) Dwellings

A 'dwelling' is another word for a substantial structure, such as a house. Unless the property owner wants to install solar panels on their roof, dwellings are considered exclusion zones. 

3) 100-year Flood Zone

According to FEMA, a 100-year floodplain is an area that has a 1% or greater chance of flooding in any given year. Renewable energy developers are unable to construct electrical infrastructure in areas where there is flooding potential. Significant floodplain issues require more due diligence, preventing many solar projects from even getting off the ground. Developers can potentially work around these hazards. However, for the majority of project development, it is typically regarded as an impractical starting point.

4) Waterway

A 'waterway' refers to any navigable body of water. Similar to 100-year flood zones, waterways are unsuitable for renewable energy development. However, new technologies, such as floating solar panels, are being developed to utilize properties with water present.

5) Tree Canopy

Tree Canopy refers to the layer of leaves, branches, and stems from trees that cover the ground when viewed from above.  In the case of solar farming, tree canopy blocks sunlight from reaching the solar panels, rendering areas covered by tree canopy unsuitable for solar panel installation. This is not a 'true' exclusion zone because the trees can be cut. It is important to note that most solar energy developers are unwilling to timber properties for renewable energy development, as this defeats the overall purpose of environmental protection.

6) Wilderness, National Parks, State Parks

Renewable energy development is prohibited on land that is designated for preservation or protected due to the presence of a wildlife habitat. 

7) Hazardous Site

Hazardous sites are properties that may be contaminated by chemicals, posing a risk to human health or the environment. Hazardous sites are typically considered 'true' exclusion zones for renewable energy development depending on the type of hazard, but new developments on hazardous sites (such as landfills) are becoming more common.

8) NFS Land Unit

A NFS Land Unit is a nationally significant classification of federally owned forest, range, and related lands that are managed by the USDA. The resources on NFS Land Units are conserved and protected by the USDA, rendering them 'true' exclusion zones for renewable energy development, similar to Wilderness, National Parks, Grasslands, and State Parks.

9) Grassland

A grassland is an area where the vegetation is dominated by a nearly continuous cover of grasses. Grasslands enrolled in the federally funded CRP program are considered protected areas that prohibit any development, similar to NFS Land Units, Wilderness, State Parks, and National Parks.

In LandApp and LandGate's free property reports, 'grasslands' that are identified as a land type used to estimate total land value are different from grassland exclusion zones. These 'grasslands' are not exclusion zones and simply represent the land use type:

screenshot of property report data from LandGate's toolkit

10) Wetland

Wetlands are areas where water covers the soil either permanently or seasonally. Similar to 100-year floodplains, wetlands are also generally considered 'true' exclusion zones where renewable energy development is not feasible.

11) Transmission Line

Transmission lines carry electric energy from one point to another in the electric power system. They are crucial components for renewable energy projects, as they transport energy produced from solar panels and wind turbines to local distribution systems (substations). Transmission lines are considered 'true' exclusion zones because of the possibility of electric shock. The minimum safe distance from transmission lines depends on the voltage of the transmission line.

12) Railroad

Railroad tracks and associated infrastructure are considered 'true' exclusion zones, as they require special permits and approvals for construction. They can also create conflicts with renewable energy infrastructure, as they often span long distances and may have safety concerns.

13) Oil & Gas Well

An oil well is a drilled hole in the Earth designed to extract oil or other hydrocarbons, such as natural gas, from beneath the surface. Abandoned oil & gas wells are not considered 'true' exclusion zones because renewable energy companies are now finding ways to repurpose the existing infrastructure from oil & gas wells to support projects. Producing/ active oil & gas wells are ‘true’ exclusion zones because they cannot be utilized by renewable energy developers safely, but they are able to construct energy infrastructure around these wells.

Mineral leasing and renewable energy leasing can coexist on the same property. However, in cases where the surface owner and the mineral owners are different, the mineral rights holder's legal right to reasonable use of the surface for its operations could undermine a solar company's plan to build a solar array on that land. This is because the mineral estate is considered the dominant estate over the surface estate, so any planned uses for the surface must not hinder any future plans for oil & gas development.

14) Water Well

Renewable energy developers can not construct energy infrastructure on or over water wells. However, they can work around them.

15) Hydrocarbon Gas Liquid Pipeline

Hydrocarbon gas liquid pipelines are  used to transport pressurized natural gas liquids (such as propane, butane, and ethane) from production and processing sites to retail distribution centers. They are considered exclusion zones due to the high risk of explosion and potential damage to renewable energy infrastructure.

15) Natural Gas Pipeline

Similar to hydrocarbon gas liquid pipelines, natural gas pipelines are also exclusion zones due to the high risk of explosion and potential damage to renewable energy infrastructure. These exclusion zones can extend beyond the actual pipeline, as there may be buffer zones in place for safety reasons.

16) CO2 Pipeline

CO2 pipelines are used for the transport of carbon dioxide from industrial plants to underground storage sites or for use in enhanced oil recovery processes. These pipelines are considered exclusion zones for renewable energy development due to safety concerns and potential conflicts with pipeline operators.

When you generate a free property report or utilize LandApp to analyze a property, the acreage designated to the above exclusion zones is subtracted from the total acreage of the property to provide a ‘total buildable acreage’ number that represents how much of the property could be usable for renewable energy development:

screenshot of property report data from LandGate's toolkit

Most sites are not ‘perfect’ for renewable energy development. When possible, renewable energy developers are willing to come up with creative solutions to make a project work. The best way to determine if a renewable energy developer may be willing to construct a project on your property is to list the property for lease in a competitive marketplace, such as on LandGate:


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