Local governments in Pennsylvania play an important role in the deployment of solar energy in Pennsylvania not only by regulating where and how solar projects can be built, but also acting as a potential customer in procuring solar energy for use at municipal facilities. Many of these projects will be developed in rural communities with open tracts of land and bring economic opportunities to the area. Local governments may have to develop ordinances and setbacks for accessory use solar and for grid scale solar. Local governments can also take an active role in reducing their greenhouse gas emissions and work with developing and procuring renewable energy such as solar.
Zoning and Permitting Resources for Residential and Commercial Scale Solar Development
Residential and commercial scale solar projects are usually considered as Accessory Solar Energy Systems. Accessory Solar Energy Systems are intended to primarily reduce on-site consumption of utility power or fuels. These systems are usually roof mounted, but can also include free-standing ground mounted solar arrays providing energy for use on-site, and are typically regulated in permitted similar to other types of home and building improvements. Examples of information that can be helpful for local governments considering solar zoning and permitting include:
The Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission created this framework as a resource for municipalities as they develop and update zoning ordinances to govern the siting of small-scale solar PV energy systems in their community. The purpose of this framework is to provide clear, regionally consistent guidance on how to construct solar PV zoning ordinance. The framework assists municipalities in identifying ways to regulate solar PV in their zoning codes, subdivision codes, and other regulations and ordinances in a way that aligns with their local land use and community goals.
PennFuture, in partnership with the Western Pennsylvania Rooftop Solar Challenge and funded by the United States Department of Energy’s (DOE) SunShot Initiative, prepared this resource to facilitate successful, cost-effective small scale solar photovoltaic (PV) installations in Pennsylvania. Although this guidebook was developed for a Western Pennsylvania stakeholder group, the content is applicable for cities, boroughs, and townships across the entire Commonwealth. This guide introduces basic concepts related to small scale solar PV installations and outlines the regulations and permitting process successfully adopted by Pennsylvania municipalities. The guide contains background information, a model solar zoning ordinance, model permitting application and information related to permitting fees and processes. It also includes examples of completed solar permits.
Additional information on these topics can be found in the Planning, Zoning, & Development and the Codes, Permitting, & Construction section of SolSmart Toolkit for Local Governments.
Land Use and Zoning Resources for Grid-Scale Solar Development
Grid-scale solar projects are usually considered as Principal Solar Energy Systems (PSES). Principal Solar Energy Systems are intended to supply electricity into the transmission grid for use off-site of where the system is located. These systems are typically large in size, requiring significant amounts of property, and may require updates to subdivision and land use development ordinances and zoning requirements. Examples of information that can be helpful for local governments considering solar zoning and permitting include:
This comprehensive model ordinance was developed by the Cumberland County Planning Department using a variety of ordinances from municipalities in the county and around the state and from ordinances in surrounding states. It provides model ordinances for both accessory use as well as principal use solar energy systems. The model is intended to provide a thorough review of all aspects of solar energy systems that could be regulated. Municipalities are not recommended to implement this entire ordinance without modification. Rather, municipalities should review this ordinance, examine their local situation, and adopt the regulations that make the most sense for their municipality.
In 2020, the Penn State Extension conducted a webinar entitled Utility Scale Solar: Land Use, Policy and Emerging Ordinances - An Interactive Q and A. This webinar provides an overview on topics including solar energy efficiency, land use, state policies, and emerging township ordinances.
Solar Energy for Use by Local Governments
In order to meet Climate Action Plan or other community goals, Local Governments may choose to use solar energy as the power source for municipal facilities. There are multiple paths to acquire solar energy to power municipal operations, with both on- and off-site installation possibilities.
On-Site Solar Energy Opportunities: On-site solar photovoltaic (PV) systems are installed at the location where the electricity will be consumed. Similar to residential or commercial solar PV installations, they may be placed on rooftops, parking lots, or other suitable areas where a direct connection to the facility consuming the power can be established.
- Installing and Operating On-Site Solar PV: In this scenario, the municipality is responsible for procuring, installing, operating, and maintaining the solar PV system, and will realize the full savings on the utility bills at the facilities where systems are installed.
- Leasing On-Site Solar Energy through a Power Purchase Agreement (PPA): In this scenario, the local government contracts with a third-party developer who will install and operate a solar PV system at a municipal site, and then purchases electricity from the installation an agreed upon price throughout the life of the lease. This delivery model has the advantage of eliminating operations and maintenance responsibilities for the local government, and may reduce project lifecycle costs as the developer can take advantage of federal tax credit and other financial incentives that are not available to local governments.
Off-Site Solar Energy Opportunities: When adequate locations for solar PV installations are limited, or the energy demand is greater than the available space, local governments have the option to procure solar energy from off-site sources.
- Purchasing Off-Site Solar Energy through a Power Purchase Agreement (PPA): Similar to leasing on-site solar energy through a PPA, large entities with multiple facility locations, such as the City of Philadelphia and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, have been entering into PPAs with third-party developers to construct solar PV facilities off-site to generate electricity for government operations. In this scenario, the power purchaser (government entity) enters into a fixed-price supply agreement with the developer to purchase all of the energy generated from the facility over a specified period of time, and the energy is transmitted through the existing transmission and distribution grid. DEP, through partnership with the Commonwealth’s GreenGov Council, is examining how to provide opportunities for local governments to take advantage of procurement model.
- Purchasing Off-Site Solar Energy through the Selection of a Preferred Solar Generation Source: Much like the options available to residential and commercial consumers, local governments have the option to designate their energy supplier and select a provider who will source 100% solar energy. The Pennsylvania Municipal League (PML), through the Municipal Utility Alliance (MUA), offers an Electricity Procurement Program that streamlines the process for local governments to enter into one- to two-year contracts for the supply of electricity. When using this method, a municipality may request electricity come from solar, or another renewable source, when requesting a quote. Further information can be found on the MUA website.
Additional information on these options can be found in the Solar Development on Public Facilities and Under-Utilized Land section of SolSmart Toolkit for Local Governments.
Additional Solar Resources for Local Governments
Nonprofit and Solar Advocacy Resources:
- SolSmart: SolSmart is a national program led by the International City/County Management Association and The Solar Foundation, along with a team of partners, including the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, with deep expertise in solar energy and local governments. SolSmart awards cities, counties, and regional organizations points using objective criteria for removing obstacles to solar energy development. To help communities achieve designation, SolSmart provides no-cost technical assistance from a team of national experts who work to evaluate programs and practices that impact solar markets and identify high-prospect opportunities for improvement. Additionally, SolSmart has published the SolSmart Toolkit for Local Governments which provides guidance on many aspects of the solar development process from the local government perspective.
- Solar Energy Industry Association (SEIA): SEIA is a national trade association building a comprehensive vision for the use of solar energy through research, education and advocacy. SEIA has identified the time and cost of navigating the local permitting process as a barrier to the deployment of further solar energy installations, and is looking to remove this barrier through educating industry and policymakers, easing permitting times, and creating an environment of success for model permitting on the federal, state, and local levels. SEIA also compiles solar policy resources at the state level, and provides a summary for Pennsylvania.
- National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL): NREL is a federal program that advances the science and engineering of energy efficiency, sustainable transportation, and renewable power technologies, which include solar energy, and provides the knowledge to integrate and optimize energy systems. NREL works with state, local, and tribal communities to support development of efficient, affordable, and resilient energy systems that address local energy challenges, and has developed resources to support these stakeholder groups. NREL has recently developed an free permitting application and fee tool for local governments to use for residential solar installations called SolarAPP.
- Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE): EERE is a federal Department of Energy Office that houses a Solar Energy Technologies Office. This office has published Solar Energy Resources for Government Officials to assist Local, state, and federal government entities in the United States looking to procure solar for themselves or make it easier for their communities to install solar can utilize best practices and resources already developed by DOE.
- Environmental Protection Agency (EPA): The EPA has developed a Local Government Solar Projects Portal that provides project development resources, shares best practices, and offer technical support.