Removing Local Barriers to Advancing Solar Energy in Suffolk County, New York

Surrounded by water on three sides, Suffolk County, New York, covers the eastern most portion of Long Island, including such summer destinations as the Hamptons and Montauk. The county, and Long Island as a whole, have long been committed to sustainability, dating back to its 1970 comprehensive development plan, which said, “The ecological balance of the Island must be protected; an equilibrium must be maintained if man is to live in harmony with his environment.” Fast forward to 2015, the comprehensive plan continues to prioritize climate action, mentioning the devastating outcomes of Superstorm Sandy and outlining the sustainability goals of the county.

Suffolk County’s planning has put solar energy at the forefront, acknowledging the many benefits of using solar and other renewable energy. While the county does not have planning and zoning powers, it has unified its townships to remove local barriers and support the local growth of solar, leading to thousands of residential solar permits every year. Additionally, the county hosts 17 MW of grid-tied solar on county parking lots and at the county airport, which were both financed and built privately. Suffolk County is a promising example of the many ways in which counties without planning and zoning powers can bring together communities to enact effective change and combat climate change.

Unified Solar Permit
In 2009, the Suffolk County Planning Commission, along with neighboring Nassau County, launched a unified solar permit. The permit was a collaborative effort between both counties, along with Long Island Power Authority (LIPA), to develop a model application and approval process for residential solar development across Long Island. This was a year-long effort, developed through a variety of in-person meetings and conference calls with utility representatives and municipal planners. The meetings were held by the chair of the Suffolk County Planning Commission; the county did not bring in a consultant.

This effort was one of the first of its kind. By providing permitting consistency across its jurisdictions, Suffolk County has made solar more accessible to thousands of Long Island residents. In fact, after the permit was finalized, New York state began incentivizing other regions to follow these same steps to create a unified solar permit. All 10 townships in Suffolk County have adopted the unified permit, benefiting the over 40,000 residential solar installations in Nassau and Suffolk counties.

In addition to streamlining the residential permitting process across Suffolk County, in 2015, the Suffolk County Planning Commission went a step further. The commission worked with several towns, community stakeholders, and LIPA to develop recommendations for a utility-scale model municipal code to expedite the siting of utility-scale solar arrays, which can be found on the county’s website.

A large-scale solar installation in Suffolk County.

Municipal Installations
Suffolk County has excelled in municipal-led solar installations. It has installed solar on seven municipal buildings across the county, totaling nearly 250 kW of capacity. These projects were planned and executed by the county Department of Public Works Building and Design Division and funded through the capital budget, after calculating each project’s utility rebates to ensure cost-effectiveness. Following is a summary of Suffolk County’s municipal installations and their given capacity:

Municipal InstallationSystem Size
Department of Public Works Headquarters12 kW
Board of Elections100 kW
Fourth Police Precinct46 kW
Police Headquarters40 kW
Bergen Point Sewage Treatment Plant24 kW
Griffing Avenue Courts20 kW
Parks Department-GATR Site5 kW

Additionally, Suffolk County is hosting 12.8 MW of distributed solar in six county parking lots across the county. The installations were financed and built privately after the county submitted the locations of the arrays to the LIPA website in response to the solar request for proposals (RFP). These “power lots” generate power that is directly fed into the grid to help power Long Island with renewable energy.

Most recently, Suffolk County completed construction on a 4.2 MW array located at the county-owned Gabreski Airport in Westhampton Beach, New York. This project was also financed and built privately; the county issued an RFP to find a developer and apply for the Feed-in-Tariff II for LIPA in 2015. The project did not come without its own challenges, as one of the first utility-scale airport installations in the region.

The first challenge began when the solar developer selected by the county went bankrupt during the development of the project. Further, a chemical contaminant was identified in soil near the installation site, leading to an 18-month investigation to ensure the contaminant was far enough from the installation. The installation is currently awaiting final interconnection and, when complete, will provide Long Island with additional clean, renewable solar energy.

Work with SolSmart

In recognition of these actions of removing local barriers to advancing solar energy, Suffolk County received the SolSmart Gold designation in March 2018. The county was also recognized for creating an interactive solar map for the community, coordinating utility and city inspections for solar PV to reduce the total number of inspections needed, and making solar PV metrics publicly available.

Suffolk County was part of a SolSmart advisor cohort and worked with Sustainable CUNY (City University of New York) to achieve this designation. A benefit of the SolSmart designation is it provides the county with a new tool that stresses the importance of lowering barriers to solar and gives the county the opportunity to evaluate its progress. Lisa Broughton, energy director and bio/high-tech development specialist, said, “After receiving the award, the team at Suffolk County was encouraged to look for new opportunities to use solar and get more solar in the community.

Click here to learn more about Suffolk County’s efforts in the SolSmart program

This case study was written by SolSmart team member Mary Van Leuven, Project Manager at The Solar Foundation.