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Solar 101

(Last updated May 2021)


The Onondaga County Department of Planning prepared this summary of information and resources to help local governments regulating and reviewing solar energy systems in Onondaga County. The information provided here is the result of a comprehensive review of available information and other evaluation tools. We welcome your feedback on the solar energy information and resources provided. Please feel free to contact us if you have any questions or would like to see additional information added.



According to estimates from the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), electricity generation from solar energy systems increased in the United States from about 5 million kilowatt-hours (kWh) in 1984 to over 100 billion kWh today. Utility-scale photovoltaic (PV) power plants (systems producing 1 megawatt of solar energy or more) accounted for 64% of the solar electricity generated in the U.S. in 2019.


In New York State, an increase in the number of solar energy systems as power generating facilities, rather than accessory uses, has been observed in recent years, partially driven by the passing of the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (Climate Act) in 2019. As these systems become larger and more complex, local governments are looking for best practices to minimize potential impacts to environmental resources and neighboring properties and ensure compatibility with land use planning goals and the local community.


Benefits of Solar


There are many benefits to promoting solar development in your community, including:

  • Reducing dependency on fossil fuels
  • Minimizing pollution
  • Utilizing a local, renewable energy source

Types of Solar Systems


Solar energy systems can be defined in a number of ways by their intended use, construction, and/or size. The NYS Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) recommends classifying solar energy systems into three tiers for regulatory purposes as follows:


  • Tier I: Roof-mounted or building-integrated solar energy systems


  • Tier II: Ground-mounted systems that generate up to 110% of electricity consumed on-site over the previous 12 months


  • Tier III: Any system not included in the list for Tier I  or Tier II


In comparison to Tier I and II solar energy systems, Tier III systems typically produce electricity for off-site use and are the principle use of a site rather than an accessory use.


NYSERDA’s Solar Guidebook contains information, tools, and step-by-step instructions to support local governments managing solar energy development in their communities, intended to further solar development in New York State.


Preparing for Solar


The programs and regulations relative to solar energy are numerous, confusing, and seem to be ever changing. Planning and regulation at the local level is important, particularly for large-scale solar systems with significant land area requirements.




It is important for local governments to establish clear goals for solar energy systems by identifying areas in their community where solar projects are encouraged, as well as areas where solar energy projects may not be a good fit and land preservation for other uses is the priority.

  • These goals should be reflected in a local comprehensive plan.
  • Other plans that may include solar energy goals are:
    • Climate Smart plan
    • Energy plan
    • Agricultural and Farmland Protection plan
    • Open Space Preservation plan



A municipality can regulate solar energy systems in their community by adopting a local law or amending their zoning provisions to reinforce community goals and reduce obstacles to planning approvals and/or permitting for solar energy projects.


To get started:

  • Review existing local permitting processes or solar regulations to identify inefficiencies.
    • A moratorium may be used to temporarily halt solar development while regulations are under review.


  • Consider the different types, or tiers, of solar systems (residential or commercial, roof-mounted, building-mounted, or ground-mounted, small or large-scale) that will be permitted.
  • Conduct a thorough review of local land uses and apply criteria to evaluate, by tier, where solar opportunities exist and where types of solar systems may be more or less acceptable.


  • Define the appropriate permitting process for each type of system.


  • Implement tools, such as special use permits and site plan reviews, where appropriate.


  • Consider any additional requirements for things like solar energy systems in agricultural areas or battery energy storage systems.



NYSDERA’s NY-Sun (Solar Initiative) program is a comprehensive resource for local municipalities. On their website, municipal leaders can access:

  • Model laws for solar energy systems and battery energy storage systems
  • Permitting and inspection tools
  • Guidance for special use permits and site plan regulations
  • Uniform Code requirements for solar energy systems and battery energy storage systems
  • And more!


Reviewing Solar Projects


Proposed solar energy projects in Onondaga County are reviewed by either New York State or the municipality in which the project is located, depending on the energy generating capacity of the system.


State Review


For projects 25 megawatts (MW) or more:

EXCEPTIONS: Prior to creation of the Siting Office, solar projects larger than 25 MW were subject to a state-level review under New York State’s Article 10 Law. Projects that are in the initial phases of the Article 10 review process may continue to seek a permit through Article 10 or opt-in to the permit review process completed by the Siting Office.


Local municipalities can still be involved with the state-level review process.


  • The local municipality will be notified of a siting permit application in their community and have an opportunity to provide input.


  • The Siting Office is required to consider any applicable local laws when making a determination.


  • Host Community Agreements (HCAs) can be used to provide certain benefits directly to a municipality hosting a project, and can be uniquely adapted for each municipality.


For more information about the state-level review process:





To find current applications under review by the Siting Office, go to: https://ores.ny.gov/permit-applications


Local Review


For projects less than 25 MW:

  • Projects are subject to the review and permitting requirements of the local municipality.

OPTIONAL: Solar projects 20-25 MW may opt-in to the state-level permit review process completed by the Office of Renewable Energy Siting (ORES) for projects 25 MW or more.


Municipalities may wish to consider the following items during local review of solar projects. Where applicable, these conditions may also be established in local laws or ordinances.

  • For Tier I: Roof-mounted or building-integrated solar energy systems
    • Fire safety considerations
    • Compliance with building codes
    • Design to minimize impacts to historic buildings
  • For Tier II: Ground-mounted systems that generate up to 110% of electricity consumed on-site over the previous 12 months
    • Site plan review and special permit considerations


  • For Tier III: Any system not included in the list for Tier I or Tier II
    • Design to minimize impacts on neighboring uses
    • Best practices to minimize impacts to:
      • Ecological resources
      • Agricultural lands
      • Recreational Resources
    • Post-construction plans to restore the site
    • Plans for decommissioning
    • Host Community Agreements


See SOCPA’s Project Review Guide for Municipalities for a checklist of items to consider during review and SOCPA’s guide to Best Management Practices for Agriculture-Friendly Projects for projects proposed on agrilcultural lands.




State Resources


  • NYS Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA)

NY-Sun (Solar Initiative)



  • NYS Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA)

Solar Guidebook for Local Governments



  • NYS Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA)
Battery Energy Storage System Guidebook


  • NYS Department of Agriculture and Markets

Guidelines for Solar Energy Projects - Construction Mitigation for Agricultural Lands



Local Resources

  • Onondaga County Department of Planning

Other Resources


  • Solar@Scale- A Local Government Guidebook for Improving Large- Scale Solar Development Outcomes: Solar@Scale is a partnership between the International City/County Management Association (ICMA) and the American Planning Association (APA) that aims to help cities, towns, counties, and special districts understand and realize the potential benefits of large-scale solar development. The purpose of this guidebook is to help local government practitioners - including planners, economic development professionals, local government managers, and elected and appointed officials - make decisions that improve large-scale solar development outcomes. 


Guidance from Other Communities


  • NYS Tug Hill Commission

Planning for Offsite Solar Energy Projects (Issue Paper)



  • Tompkins County

Tools to Promote and Regulate the Deployment of Renewable Energy Systems



  • Scenic Hudson

Clean Energy, Green Communities - A Guide to Siting Renewable Energy in the Hudson Valley




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