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Guide to Evaluating Visual Impact Assessments for Renewable Energy

Argonne and the National Park Service (NPS) have prepared a guide to help NPS staff evaluate the quality of visual impact assessments for utility-scale renewable energy and electric transmission facilities.

Large-scale wind and solar facilities are being built across the United States, and soon will be built off our shores. When these facilities and the associated transmission projects are built on lands near areas administered by the U.S. Department of the Interior National Park Service (NPS), scenic views from NPS-administered areas may be affected. NPS is charged by law with preserving the scenic values of NPS lands for the enjoyment of future generations. Views of the lands and waters outside NPS-administered areas form an integral part of visitors' scenic experiences; these lands and waters form the backdrop for both iconic and everyday views of important scenic, historic and cultural landscapes.

As new renewable energy and transmission facilities are built, scenic impacts to NPS units are increasing. NPS staff must be able to understand the impacts of these projects, and to participate in project planning and siting activities in order to minimize the impacts to NPS scenic, historic, and cultural resources.

Visual Impact Assessments

The NPS seeks to develop strategies to avoid or mitigate visual impacts from renewable energy facilities sited on nearby lands and waters in order to preserve and protect scenic vistas — including lands outside of park units and other special status areas. Resource managers with NPS units are often required to evaluate the visual impact assessments contained in proposals for utility-scale renewable energy developments outside park boundaries. Visual impact assessments for large-scale energy projects are complex technical documents, and because of the relative newness of utility-scale wind and solar facilities, NPS resource managers at the unit level may be unfamiliar with the technical details and particular challenges these facilities present in terms of potential visual impacts.

Guidance for Evaluating Renewable Energy Facility Visual Impact Assessments

To help NPS staff to become more effective participants in the visual impact assessment process, Argonne National Laboratory's Environmental Science Division and NPS have developed the Guide To Evaluating Visual Impact Assessments for Renewable Energy Projects, a comprehensive guide to evaluating the quality and completeness of visual impact assessments prepared for solar, onshore and offshore wind energy facilities, and electric transmission facilities.

The Guide covers the following topics:

  • The renewable energy project siting and approval process for federal agencies;
  • Correct interpretation and critical assessment of the completeness and accuracy of a visual impact assessment document;
  • Assessment of impacts associated with power generation and transmission components and directly associated infrastructure; and
  • Evaluation of the quality and accuracy of visual simulations of proposed utility-scale renewable energy projects.

The Guide is an important tool for NPS staff to learn about the scenic impacts of renewable energy facilities and electric transmission. The Guide helps NPS staff become more effective participants in the visual impact assessment and project planning and siting process by explaining how visual impacts are assessed, how to judge the accuracy and completeness of a visual impact assessment, and how to critically evaluate visual simulations, a key component of visual impact assessments.

While the Guide was developed primarily for use by NPS staff, it will be useful to staff of other government agencies, tribal organizations, visual resource professionals, and other project stakeholders concerned with visual impacts to scenic, historic, and cultural resources. The Guide is publicly available at the NPS Natural Resource Publications Management Web site (https://irma.nps.gov/App/Reference/Profile/2214258).

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