New Yorkers are likely paying more than 80% of the country when it comes to electricity from the utility. While solar energy offers freedom from these high rates, many question how well solar could actually work with Upstate New York’s snowy climate.
In a region of the country not known for their sunny weather, solar energy actually works very well as a cost-saving method of producing energy. Not only do the solar systems produce enough electricity to contribute sizeable savings for their owners, but the state’s solar-friendly policies and generous incentives keep installation costs low and paybacks short.
In fact, according to NY-Sun, a state-run initiative dedicated to making solar accessible and affordable, there are nearly 97,000 solar systems across the state, and they’re not all in the New York Metro, either.
There are many communities in Upstate New York rising above national averages when it comes to producing renewable energy, and we’ve ranked the top 10.
How We Calculated the Rankings
We took a look at two factors for each county - the number of installations and the kilowatts (kW) installed. We then ranked the counties for both factors and averaged the results. If any counties were tied, we put the one with more installations first. This is because installations are a better indicator of how easy a county makes it for its businesses and homeowners to go solar, and stops our results from being skewed by big solar farms.
Top 10 Overall
Top 10 by Installs
Top Solar Counties in New York
1. ORANGE COUNTY, NY
208.44 MW (#1 in Upstate NY) | 5,524 Installations (#1 in Upstate NY)
Why Orange County?
Located between the Hudson and Delaware Rivers, Orange County is just beyond the reach of the New York Metro. It is part of the Mid-Hudson Regional Sustainability Plan, which was also adopted by several counties in the region. Laying out steps for creating an environmentally sustainable pathway for economic development, this plan includes solar energy in a big way.
Orange County leads the list in megawatts produced, which is surely in part due to the many large solar farms and community solar systems in the area. These bring inexpensive and sustainable electricity to many homeowners and businesses in the region without the large upfront investment. With plenty of conveniently located land available near power lines and high electricity rates, Orange County is an attractive place for many solar farm investors. While other counties in the Mid-Hudson region rank on the list for similar reasons, none match Orange County’s scale.
However, Orange County also leads the list in the number of installations, which means that there are a great deal of smaller, independently owned systems that power Orange County’s homes and businesses as well!
Extra Space Storage in Central Valley, NY (536.82 kW)
Extra Space Storage has made it their mission to bring clean, renewable energy to hundreds of their storage facilities across the county. In 2015, they brought this mission to Orange County by installing this nearly-537 kW system on the roof of their facility in Central Valley. With plenty of open roof space, their system cranks out the kWhs, keeping their electric costs down and their carbon footprint small.
2. ULSTER COUNTY, NY
87.6 MW (#4 in Upstate NY) | 2,999 installations (#3 in Upstate NY))
Why Ulster County?
Nestled among the Catskill Mountains and the Shawangunk Ridge, it’s easy to keep the environment top-of-mind while in Ulster. With traditions steeped in agriculture, the county is still well-known for its idyllic countryside and farmers markets bursting with fresh produce.
The County of Ulster shows its commitment to the environment, having been recognized as the 26th largest green power user for local governments in the country by the EPA. The county also established the Energize NY Finance Program, which offers financing for commercial buildings and non-profits, and supports the Solarize Hudson Valley program, which aims to make going solar easier for homes and small businesses. Ulster makes it easy for their residents and businesses to go solar, making them #2 overall.
New York State Bridge Authority in Kingston, NY (486.18 kW)
Located right off the Kingston-Rhinecliff Bridge is a 1,332-panel solar system that produces 26% of the Authority’s electricity. Installed in early 2018, this is the first of several solar systems they intend to install. In further efforts to reduce its non-renewable energy expenditure, the Authority also converted all street lights and light bulbs to LEDs.
Notice the snow on the ground? It’s an unavoidable fact that it snows in Upstate New York. But solar panels are designed to warm up and let the snow slide right off them, far before the snow melts elsewhere. This leaves you plenty of sunshine to crank out those kWhs! Learn more about what happens to solar panels in the snow.
3. ALBANY COUNTY, NY
89.57 MW (#3 in Upstate NY) | 2,681 Installations (#4 in Upstate NY)
Why Albany County?
As home to the state’s capital, Albany is abuzz with residents working in a variety of career sectors. In 2017, Albany was the first municipality in the Capital Region to earn NYSERDA’s Clean Energy Community designation. This recognized the county’s dedication to reducing energy use, cutting costs, and driving clean energy development. One way they’ve achieved this is making it easier for their citizens and businesses to go solar, from streamlining the permitting approvals process to undertaking the community-based solarize campaign which reduced solar projects costs through the joint purchase for 33 customers.
Guilderland Central School District in Guilderland, NY (3.3 MW)
While the stellar education of young minds is an essential investment in the future of our planet, so too is our stewardship of natural resources. Having installed three solar systems, this New York state school district truly recognizes that. Most recently, they celebrated the opening of their largest system - a 3.3 MW solar farm that will meet 58% of the district’s energy needs and save them millions.
And going solar has an added bonus - an educational element for students. Science classes use energy production reports in their lessons to understand how solar panels work and how weather impacts their production.
4. DUTCHESS COUNTY, NY
69.66 MW (#7 in Upstate NY) | 3,351 Installations (#2 in Upstate NY)
Why Dutchess County?
Located along the eastern banks of the Hudson River, Dutchess County has a long history of agricultural production. But as New York City and its population grew, Dutchess County shifted from crops to houses as it became a popular home for NYC commuters.
Today, the county farms in a much different way - they produce energy with solar systems. While it joins the other Hudson Valley counties as a popular site for large-scale solar farms, it also comes in at number three for the most solar installations, meaning solar is a popular option for homes and businesses in the county as well.
Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, NY (34 kW)
Though 34 kW system may seem modest in size compared to the other featured installations on this list, what this system represents lets it stand toe-to-toe with projects on the MW scale. Proposed by a group of Vassar College students, this system is located on the barn at the Vassar Farm and Ecological Preserve, home to Vassar College’s Environmental Engagement Cooperative. This student-initiated project is integral to the college’s campus-wide plan to achieve carbon neutrality by 2030. The college also has 15% of its energy needs met by a community solar project located in Esopus.
Here’s to the bright young minds that took the initiative to make this project happen!
5. ERIE COUNTY, NY
72.24 MW (#6 in Upstate NY) | 2.625 Installations (#5 in Upstate NY)
Why Erie County?
As the most densely populated county in the state outside of the New York Metro, Eire County is home to nearly one million residents and is the metropolitan center of Western New York. Including the city of Buffalo, the county is located off the coast of Lake Erie. The area’s many local businesses that make up this industrial and commercial hub take advantage of the savings solar energy can give them.
The County aims to make this easier for businesses, having signed a new law that establishes a county-wide sustainable energy loan program. It provides Property Assessed Clean Energy “PACE” financing to for-profit and not-for-profit business owners looking to install renewable energy systems. The program provides up to 100% financing for clean energy improvements.
Goya Foods of Great Lakes, NY in Angola, NY (1.34 MW)
With large solar systems on their warehouse roofs across the country, Goya ranks among the top ten solar users in the US’s food and beverage industry. At their warehouse in Angola, the expansive roof is utilized as a home to the 1.34 MW system that churns out plenty of free electricity to offset their energy consumption.
6. MONROE COUNTY, NY
106.9 MW (#2 in Upstate NY) | 1,168 Installations (#10 in Upstate NY)
Why Monroe County?
Located northeast of Buffalo and northwest of Syracuse, Monroe County is north of the Fingerlakes and home to the third-largest city in the state, Rochester. Known as the world capital of imaging, several imaging and optical science companies are headquartered in this county, along with nine colleges, and many other organizations dedicated to environmentalism.
These forward-thinking companies are joined by a forward-thinking local government, which has assembled a sustainability team to carry out environmental projects on the county level. While it ranks #2 in overall MW produced by solar, it comes up a bit short in installations, causing it’s overall ranking to drop.
Rochester Regional Health in Parma, NY (5.48 MW)
In early 2019, Rochester Regional energized their 5.48 MW solar farm that powers the health system’s 120+ off-site medical practices and support facilities. This kWh machine is the organization’s latest step to achieving its goal of using 100% renewable electricity by 2025. At the time of its construction, it was the second largest solar farm in New York State, spanning 20 acres.
7. SARATOGA COUNTY, NY
63.04 MW (#8 in Upstate NY) | 2,103 Installations (#6 in Upstate NY)
Why Saratoga County?
From 2010 to 2018, Saratoga’s population increased at 4.8% - making it one of the fastest-growing counties in the Northeast US. This is in part due to the county’s reputation as being the heart of “New York State’s Tech Valley.” In addition to bringing a boost to the local economy, it also brings many forward-thinking businesses that have embraced solar energy as an eco-friendly and cost-effective alternative to drive their companies' growth.
Spa Solar Park in Saratoga Springs, NY (2.6 MW)
There’s something poetic about covering an old landfill (a monument to the negative impact humans have on the environment) with a source of clean, renewable energy. And that’s just what the City of Saratoga Springs did. In 2017, this 2.6 MW solar farm was commissioned and has since supplied the City of Saratoga Springs with 40% of its energy. The best part? There are still over 50 acres on the site, leaving plenty of room for expansion!
8. TOMPKINS COUNTY, NY
84.76 MW (#5 in Upstate NY) | 1,401 Installations (#9 in Upstate NY)
Why Tompkins County?
Tompkins County is known for its beautiful natural scenery and is home to Ithaca College and Cornell University. In addition to providing forward-thinking professionals that work at Tompkins County’s many businesses, these colleges interact with the community to drive solar installations. In 2017, the Cornell Cooperative Extension ran a “Go Solar Tompkins County” campaign that led to over 100 people installing solar.
Cornell University’s Snyder Road Solar Farm in Lansing, NY (2 MW)
Completed in 2014, the Snyder Road Solar Farm was Cornell University’s first megawatt-scale renewable energy resource. Five years later, the school now has five solar farms which produce enough energy to cover 7% of the college’s electricity.
9. SCHENECTADY COUNTY, NY
57.94 MW (#9 in Upstate NY) | 1,809 Installations (#8 in Upstate NY)
Why Schenectady County?
Schenectady in 1892: two electric companies merge and form what is now known as General Electric (GE). Led by Thomas Edison, the company would go on to revolutionize electricity. It was also the scene of George Westinghouse’s invention of the rotary engine and air brakes, earning the city its nickname: The City that Lights and Hauls the World.
A century later, the county boasts a lively theater scene and downtown area, as well as being home to several research and technology companies. As #9 in solar production, the county continues to light up Upstate New York. With three solar farms installed by the County, it is on its way to reaching its goal of 100% energy independence by 2021.
General Electric in Schenectady, NY (2.26 MW)
Fast-forward to the 21st century, and GE is still making waves in the county. In 2017, GE unveiled the state’s largest solar carport at their historic campus in Schenectady. The 6,800 panels are suspended above the site’s parking lot, providing shelter and protection for the cars underneath, while also making great use of an otherwise under-used space. Designed to withstand a 5-foot snowpack and 110 mph winds, these panels were designed to withstand all that mother nature throws at them.
10. RENSSELAER COUNTY, NY
42.73 MW (#10 in Upstate NY) | 1,932 Installations (#7 in Upstate NY)
Why Rensselaer County?
Located just east of Albany and Schenectady, Rensselaer County is part of New York’s Capital Region. And local lore claims that it’s home to America’s icon himself - Uncle Sam, a purported a meat packer named Samuel Wilson. Just like Saratoga, Rensselaer is part of New York’s Tech Valley and is powered by energetic start-ups and big-named tech titans. Whether a newbie or entrenched in the market, these companies embrace solar energy as a way to keep their businesses running.
Helderberg Solar Farm in Johnsonville, NY (200 kW)
This 600-panel solar system was the first community solar farm in New York’s Capital Region to be energized. It brings renewable energy to the 26 homes that, whether because of trees, property constraints, or building codes, cannot purchase their own system.
Note: All data comes from New York State’s Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA)’s NY-Sun Data and Trends. The data was accessed June 2019.