Setting an example: Three ways for U.S. jurisdictions to make solar energy a priority

sun shining through

In our cover feature for Sept/Oct, we look at the inefficiencies in local permitting and interconnection processes that are holding back solar energy adoption in pockets across the country. Check out the full feature here. On the flip side of the issues noted are communities making an effort to revise out-dated wording and ineffective practices, guided in large part by SolSmart, a U.S. Department of Energy funded recognition program for communities that have taken steps to reduce solar costs and barriers and promote solar adoption. Here are three of our favorite examples.

Buying Power

Goshen, Ind., achieved the SolSmart Gold designation and installed 103 watts of solar PV per capita, placing it ahead of places like Sacramento, Denver and San Francisco in 2017. The big hit here was organizing a Solarize Northern Indiana group-buy to bring down both grid-connected and off-grid system costs. The average cost of an array under Solarize is $2.53 per watt for a basic 5-kW system, compared to about $2.80 per watt on the open market, according to a report by Solarize. (Note: Indiana halted all of this momentum at the state level by ending net metering completely.)

Collaboration Nation

SolSmart cities seeing the most success are often clustered and collaborative. In Illinois, the Metropolitan Mayors Caucus (MMC) advised 15 municipalities and counties and successfully led them all to Gold, Silver or Bronze SolSmart designations. As of the spring of 2018, this represented the largest regional cohort of designees in the country, tying Illinois with Colorado for the largest total number of SolSmart designations (18 total statewide).

Key to this process were bi-weekly phone calls with all communities and a Dropbox system arranged to share resources. This way everyone could get on the same page and share best practices while still tailoring programs to address local nuances. The reps from Schaumburg, Ill., rewrote zoning codes to create clear solar guidelines based on communication during the SolSmart designation phase that also met community goals and aesthetic standards.

Beach Park and Schaumburg achieved SolSmart Gold and Silver designations by making online solar permitting checklists available, allowing solar by-right in their zoning codes, training permitting and inspection staff on solar, and creating a streamlined process to approve solar permits more quickly. Schaumburg and Beach Park also received points for informing its residents of local incentives, solar installers and financing options.

Starting from square one

Right at the southern tip of Texas at the Mexican border is the city of Brownsville. The population is around 200,000 people in the low to moderate income bracket, emphasis on the low. The community was in such a dire spot and in need of a boost that federal organizations from FEMA to the EPA to the DOE were brought in to help.

“We looked holistically at what can we do to improve overall and become more resilient,” said David Licon Jr., an engineer for the City of Brownsville. “Solar was always an idea here. We thought we could help [the low-income community] out if we could get the ball rolling, dispel the illusions around solar and maybe help some of our citizens struggling with that high energy bill each month — make things more sustainable in the long haul.”

Brownsville could check no boxes on the early adopter SolSmart checklist — nothing in its zoning ordinance, and no real way to get through permitting — so they started with basics. The first step was getting on the same page with the three utility companies in town.

“We were fortunate our utilities came to the table to talk about it. That’s a must,” Licon said. “We can only make suggestions, so that relationship paid dividends to get everyone on the same page.”
This led to the utilities all putting standardized applications online while working toward a three- to five-day turnaround.

The city’s zoning ordinances now allowing “by right accessory use,” which limits the number of reviews from submission to installation. The city also created a permitting process for solar so that it goes through the appropriate reviews and isn’t a slow case-by-case process avoids run-around between city and utility company.

“The next thing as we progressed forward, is communication,” Licon said. “Once we told the public what we wanted to do we have had nothing but support. Once we put a sticker on our website asking if people wanted solar, we started getting calls the next day. We are pushing. We don’t want to just facilitate; we want our own skin in the game.”

In the past year, Brownsville has seen a 200 to 300 percent growth in solar installs compared to previous year. That’s from a small number, but it’s a start and it’s a direct result from city initiatives. Licon says the next focus is vetting the solar companies coming into the area. “What guidelines do we need to protect homeowners from fly-by-night contractors? If we get momentum we don’t want people coming in to scam.”

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