Solar Developer Resources
Solar development within Pennsylvania must adhere to all applicable local and state laws and regulations. Grid-scale solar is an emerging market in Pennsylvania, and current guidance for addressing the development process those types of projects is provided below. These resources will be updated as new information becomes available.
For residential and commercial scale solar installations, specific requirements and regulations vary across different cities, boroughs, and townships, but many jurisdictions have used the information provided in the DVRPC Renewable Energy Ordinance Framework for Solar PV and the Western Pennsylvania Rooftop Solar Challenge Solar Installation Guidebook to craft ordinances and permitting requirements. Developers are encouraged to review these documents to gain a better understanding of the regulatory framework for residential and commercial scale solar development in Pennsylvania. A further discussion of these resources can be found in the Local Government section of this resource hub.
Local Permitting Requirements for Grid-Scale Solar
There are 67 counties and over 2,500 individual municipalities in Pennsylvania, each of which have autonomy in governing Subdivision and Land Use Development Ordinances (SALDO) and zoning and permitting requirements. Solar developers are encouraged to engage with local officials early in the project design process to review existing and proposed ordinances, understand community concerns, and make adjustments to projects as necessary.
DEP Permitting Requirements for Grid-Scale Solar
Given the diverse nature and scope of projects and environmental regulations in Pennsylvania, DEP developed the Permit Application Consultation Tool (PACT). This tool is intended for potential applicants who are considering siting a new project, including grid-scale solar, in Pennsylvania. It allows developers to quickly and easily determine which types of environmental permits, authorizations or notifications may be required for specific projects. PACT guides the user through a series of simple questions and provides information and links to permitting information for permits that may be required based on user responses. When submitted to DEP, the tool may serve as the foundation for a Pre-Application Conference/Meeting to discuss and verify the results and coordinate permits. Such meetings often result in significant savings of both time and resources especially when multiple permits or authorizations are needed.
Although the PACT tool is designed to address permitting and regulatory requirements for all types of project construction or expansion, there are a number of topics that may be of particular concern to developers of grid-scale solar projects. These include:
- Stormwater Management: The DEP Bureau of Clean Water has developed a Chapter 102 Permitting for Solar Panel Farms FAQ to provide information around Erosion and Sedimentation permitting requirements for grid-scale solar projects that disturb more than one acre. This document provides the Department’s interpretations concerning applicability and implementation of National Pollution Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permits for stormwater discharges associated with construction activities, including erosion and sediment control (E&S) and post-construction stormwater management (PCSM) for solar panel farms. In many counties, DEP partners with County Conservation Districts for the administration of Chapter 102 and associated Chapter 105 (Dam Safety and Waterway Management) permitting requirements. The FAQ document provides a framework within which DEP and delegated county conservation districts (CCDs) exercise administrative discretion.
- Development within Oil and Gas Sites: With a long history of development across the Commonwealth, operational and legacy oil and gas infrastructure will often be found on proposed sites for grid-scale solar developments, particularly in rural areas where this development is expected to occur. Although landowners may be aware of existing mineral development rights or the presence of operational or abandoned wells or pipelines on their property, there is still the potential for unknown rightsholders or infrastructure to impact the design and development of grid-scale solar projects. Although these concerns may be identified during a Pre-Application Conference/Meeting, developers are expected to conduct due diligence. The DEP Office of Oil and Gas Management recommends that solar developers perform the following activities at a minimum as part of the site evaluation and design process:
- Conducting title searches for oil and gas leases and other mineral development rights and identify if existing agreements, easements, or leases allow for extraction activities such as building access roads, laying pipelines, building well pads and installing surface equipment such as compressor stations. If these rights existing, accommodations for these activities must be incorporated into project design.
- Reviewing the eMapPA public GIS tool for the location of active and inactive/abandoned wells on the property site as well as identifying additional wells through the review of farmline maps and field observations. Any oil and gas infrastructure identified that is not recorded in eMapPA should be reported to DEP immediately. If wells are discovered during the site design or construction process, the wells will either need to be plugged or the solar panel placement must be modified to provide access to the well for eventual plugging.
- Considering potential ignition sources/static electricity, the use of devices that are intrinsically safe, and appropriate setback distances from oil/gas wells, pipelines, drips, separators, and other equipment where active and inactive/abandoned wells exist. All emergency access and safety considerations for this infrastructure must be understood and included/referenced in any development plan.
- Source Water Protection: To identify if the project is located in a public water supply area, The DEP Bureau of Safe Drinking Water recommends that developers use the eMapPA public GIS tool and search using the Public Water Supply Service Areas layer. If the project is located in one of these areas, the developer must notify and coordinate with the water supply agency.
State Resources Grid-Scale Solar Site Selection
Executive Order No. 2003-2 (Agricultural Land Preservation Policy) instructs state agencies to mitigate and protect against the conversion of prime agricultural land within the Commonwealth. DEP, in conjunction with other state agencies, encourages grid-scale solar developers to consider the “highest and best use” of Pennsylvania land resources when selecting sites for project installations. DEP is in the process of coordinating with other state agencies to develop resources to assist solar developers to utilize marginal land resources with redevelopment potential such as brownfields and abandoned mine lands, and will publish this information on this webpage when it becomes available.
The Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture Bureau of Farmland Preservation administers programs related to farmland preservation. Two of these programs have implications for the siting of grid-scale solar projects:
- The Agricultural Conservation Easement Program, through the use of state and local funding, places farmland in permanent conservation easements. Although solar panels by may be constructed to supply energy for on-site use, land protected in this program is not eligible not allow grid-scale solar installations that supply energy to the transmission or distribution grids. In addition to the state program, a number of private non-profit and other organizations administer conservation easement programs. Solar development on private conservation easements is regulated on an organization by organization basis.
- The Clean and Green Program is designed to keep property taxes affordable for landowners by assessing lands according to current use value rather than fair market value. Most farmland in the Commonwealth is in the Clean and Green program. Grid-scale solar installations can occur on Clean and Green farmland, but the landowner is subject to seven years of rollback taxes. The rollback tax is the difference between what was paid under Clean and Green versus what would have been paid, if the property had not been enrolled, plus 6% simple interest per year. This rollback tax only applies to the area used for the solar installation, not the entire property. Like in Agricultural Conservation Easements, solar panels by may be constructed to supply energy for on-site use and the land used is not subject to rollback tax penalties.