Best Practices in Solar Planning & Zoning

In January, SolSmart hosted a webinar titled Best Practices in Solar Planning and Zoning, where we discussed best practices for including solar in land use plans and zoning ordinances. Several of our experts from across the country gave insightful presentations about addressing “solar-ready” concepts, setting solar development goals, and capturing the benefits of solar development while minimizing risks. These experts included:

Check out the recorded full-length webinar or presentation slide deck if you’d like to learn more!

Planning for Solar Energy

The webinar highlighted five elements of a solar-ready community:

  1. Comprehensive Plans that describe solar resources and encourage development
  2. Development Regulations that explicitly address solar development in its varied forms (e.g., rooftop solar v. solar farm)
  3. Permitting Processes that are predictable, transparent, and documented
  4. Public Sector Investment in the community’s solar resources
  5. Local Programs to limit market barriers and enable private sector solar development

Comprehensive Plans

Across the country, the integration of solar into comprehensive plans has evolved into a norm, if not a necessity, as solar energy becomes of greater economic and environmental value to local communities. Comprehensive plans are of particular importance because they are the policy foundation for a community’s development regulations and investments. Within a comprehensive plan, there are four key actions a community can take to advance solar:

  • Identify and define solar resources
  • Acknowledge solar development benefits and desired co-benefits
  • Identify solar development opportunities and conflicts in the community
    • (e.g., Sterns County, Minnesota developed a comprehensive plan that both acknowledged the reasonable use of natural resources such as solar, and the importance of protecting agricultural natural resources)
  • Set development targets or goals
    • (e.g. Fairfield, Connecticut developed a sustainability plan which aims for 500 residential homes, including low-income housing, to be equipped with solar power)


Small-Scale Solar in the Zoning Code

Defining Solar

Clearly defining solar in zoning codes is very important. Not only does this inform residents and businesses about whether they can adopt solar, but it establishes the procedures for if and how solar installers and developers can operate. Contrary to conventional wisdom, not addressing solar in a zoning code is also a significant barrier to adoption and implementation. The lack of a definition, or an unclear definition, creates uncertainty for all stakeholders, leading to inefficient use of time, increased costs, and wasteful spending. As a result, local governments should develop a broad definition for solar energy which incorporates:

  • Collection, storage, and distribution of energy for heating/cooling, electricity, water heating, etc.
  • ‘Balance of system’ equipment (e.g., racking and inverters)
  • Different scale definitions to regulate impact of system size in terms of feet (e.g., small-scale v. large-scale)


Defining Key Regulations

How solar is regulated within the zoning code is also critical to solar adoption. Certain requirements or restrictions can be a significant barrier to solar installations or development.

  • Accessory Use (Rooftop PV solar)
    Garfield County, Colorado Use Table
    • When setting permitting requirements in the zoning code, rooftop PV solar should be allowed as a by right accessory use. Requiring conditional or special use permits adds time and costs to installations, which creates disincentives for small-scale solar.
      • (e.g., Garfield County, CO, integrated solar into their zoning code’s Use Table, to stipulate where it would be permitted by right and under what circumstances it would require additional review)
  • Height
    • Rooftop PV systems should be exempt on flat roofs from height calculations or allow systems to exceed the maximum height by 5 to 10 feet.
      • (e.g., Freeport, IL, allows for an additional 15 feet beyond the existing roofline)
  • Setbacks
    • Ground-mounted solar energy systems should be allowed to have a modest encroachment into the setback. This would allow greater flexibility, mitigate against shading, and ensure the system is placed efficiently.
      • (For example, see the Massachusetts Dept. of Energy Resources, Model Zoning for the Regulation of Solar Energy Systems)
  • Lot Coverage
    • Ground-mounted systems should be exempt from lot coverage/impervious surface calculations as along as the ground beneath the system is pervious. If a lot is at or near an impervious surface or the lot coverage maximum, and ground-mounted solar is counted as lot coverage, that could impede solar installations in the community.
  • Aesthetics
    • Solar PV systems should not face aesthetic regulations that could affect their functionality or economics. For example, communities should avoid limiting the visibility of solar from public rights-of-way.
  • Historic and Special-use Districts
    • Zoning codes should include guidance about how rooftop PV systems can be installed in historic and special-use districts, while still preserving historic character.
      • (e.g., Plano, TX, allows solar in its historic district if panels are placed in a way that avoids obscuring significant features such as behind a front façade or parapet wall)

Land Use Considerations for Large-Scale Solar

For certain communities, large-scale solar can be very beneficial. As demand grows and costs drop, there will an increasing need to understand how to regulate large-scale solar to best optimize its economic, energy security, and environmental value for local communities.

What is Large-Scale PV?

  • Ground-mounted solar systems that are over 1 acre
  • Systems that require about 5-7 acres per MW
  • Generally, the systems are not net metered and do not serve a building.

Why Plan for Large-Scale PV?

According to a Department of Energy report, all solar PV is expected to grow to an estimated 1,618 GW by 2050, requiring an estimated 6.6 million acres of additional land for utility-scale PV, roughly equivalent to the size of Massachusetts. The main drivers of this deployment are the significant drop in the cost of solar energy, state and city clean energy goals, and corporate procurement. As a result, local governments can expect increased pressure for solar development.

Large-Scale PV Potential Benefits

  • Economic development (jobs & spending)
  • Increased local property tax income without additional services
  • Improved energy security – no fuel needs
  • Local power generation – no shipping or purchasing of fuels
  • Reduced environmental risk of fossil fuels – mining, coal ash, greenhouse gases, mercury, etc.

Large-Scale Solar in Zoning Codes

Important factors local governments should consider in regulating large-scale solar:

  • Local communities should differentiate by size (square ft., acreage, plot size) not capacity (kW or MW). As solar technology continues to improve, systems will become increasingly efficient and require fewer panels and/or less space to generate the same amount of energy.
    • For example, a five-acre plot today could fit a 1 MW system, but in the future that same plot might accommodate 1.5 MW. This 1.5 MW system may not be allowed if a community regulates by capacity instead of square feet.
    • As a result, a zoning code that differentiates by MW or kW could quickly become outdated and result in inefficient land use or restrict future solar installations.
    • In a zoning context, solar energy systems impact communities based on their size or land use, not how much power they generate.
  • Communities should avoid regulating large-scale solar as an industrial land use.
    • Large-Scale solar does not fit typical industrial land-use characteristics:
      • Large-scale solar doesn’t require access to major transportation corridors, water, or sewer, which makes such land expensive
      • Large-scale solar can’t be developed in urban locations or on smaller parcels
      • Large-scale solar doesn’t cause nuisances such as noise, traffic, or pollution
    • Unlike traditional power plants, which should be regulated as an industrial land-use, large-scale solar doesn’t require:
      • Substantial amounts of water for steam turbines
      • On-site personnel
      • Fuel delivery via rail, road, or pipeline
    • Regulating a solar farm as an industrial land use could have future unintended consequences:
      • In 25 years, at the end of the solar panel’s lifespan, the property owner would have the right to place a factory or traditional power plant on that land.

Debunking Common Myths About Large-Scale PV

  • Solar PV panels do not cause glare
    • Solar PV panels are less reflective than water and windows and compatible with nearby residential, office, or aviation uses
  • Solar PV systems do not create noise pollution
    • The system inverters produce 45 decibels at 10 meters away, slightly less noise than a refrigerator makes
  • Solar PV systems are not dangerous
    • PV modules are enclosed in glass, carry a 25-year warranty, and meet all applicable electrical and safety standards
    • Solar PV systems are far lower voltage than transmission lines and do not have electromagnetic field (EMF) impacts.

Low-Impact PV Development Benefits

There are steps that local communities can take to develop solar projects that can create environmental and agricultural benefits.

  • Water quality protection
    • Solar installation where native grasses and revegetation techniques were tested reduce water runoff and minimize grading and soil compaction
  • Habitat value and agricultural opportunities
    • (e.g., apiaries, grazing, high-value hand-picked crops, pollinator benefits for nearby crops)
      • An NREL and Argonne National Laboratory InSPIRE study identified over 3,500 km2 (800,000 acres) of agricultural land near existing and planned large-scale PV facilities that may benefit from insect pollinators. If 10% to 50% of existing and planned solar facilities were used for pollinator habitat, they would produce $1.9 to $5.7 billion in pollination benefit annually.
  • Vegetation and solar PV
    • Vegetation has been shown to increased PV efficiencies by lowering temperatures beneath panels
    • Low height vegetation and/or grazing can help reduce operations and maintenance costs

To learn more solar planning and zoning best practices, check out our Resources page which includes the full-length webinar and presentation slide deck. If you’re interested in learning more about SolSmart technical assistance or the designation process, request a consultation here.