Soft cost progress: Over 300 local governments have streamlined solar permitting thanks to SolSmart program

solar government local permitting cutting red tape

We hype solar technology innovation often as the path forward to a renewable energy future, but the technology we have is already pretty awesome. The bigger opportunity to grow solar is now in small-scale local progress — cutting permitting red tape and normalizing solar systems within the zeitgeist. We argued this in our award-winning “Shadow Costs” feature last year. Integral to that feature were the examples of successful local government initiatives spurred on in large part by SolSmart,  a national program launched in 2016 that helps local governments make it faster, easier, and more affordable to go solar.

A year later, SolSmart has achieved its goals of getting more than 300 local governments to meet national benchmarks for encouraging solar energy and removing barriers to solar market development. A total of 328 communities have now achieved SolSmart Gold, Silver, or Bronze designations. Some of the most recent designees include Durham, NC; Elkhart County, IN; San Jose, CA; Doylestown, PA; Stevens Point, WI; Mountain Iron, MN; Miami Lakes, FL; Decorah, IA; and Haddonfield, NJ, among others.

“Solar and battery permitting should be simple,” said Lynn Jurich, CEO of Sunrun. “SolSmart has encouraged more people to adopt solar, created quality local jobs, and brought more reliable local clean energy to our energy system. We need more clean and resilient options in our local communities, and simplifying permitting is a proven way to make real progress.”

Why this matters

The 328 SolSmart designees include cities, counties, small towns, and regional organizations in 40 states and the District of Columbia, representing 82 million people. One in four people in America now live in a SolSmart-designated community.

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SolSmart is led by The Solar Foundation and the International City/County Management Association, and funded by the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Energy Technologies Office. All designated communities have met national criteria to prove they have streamlined local procedures to make it easier for homes and businesses to install solar energy systems. SolSmart provides intensive technical assistance at no cost to help communities meet these goals.

“All across the nation, local governments are leading the way toward sustainable economic growth,” said Andrea Luecke, President and Executive Director at The Solar Foundation. “SolSmart is a high performing, breakthrough program that has already helped more than 300 communities turn their goals and the demands of their constituents into reality, working with them to reduce carbon emissions, lower energy costs, create jobs, and build more resilient infrastructure. With over 18,000 communities in the U.S., we are excited to help hundreds if not thousands more reap the benefits of solar energy and compatible technologies like storage.”

Winning the soft cost battle

The actions that SolSmart communities have taken help reduce soft costs, which are the non-hardware costs that today represent roughly 65% of the cost of solar installations. SolSmart helps local governments streamline permit approvals, review planning and zoning guidelines, facilitate group purchase campaigns, and improve solar financing options. Taken together, these actions help lower the overall costs of solar installations and allow the solar industry to expand more rapidly nationwide.

“For years state and local governments have been leading the way on solar energy adoption,” said Abigail Ross Hopper, president and CEO of the Solar Energy Industries Association. “Programs like SolSmart can improve local permitting practices and cut unnecessary costs, making it much easier for American families and businesses to go solar. We congratulate the hundreds of communities that are stepping up to make solar affordable and accessible.”

One of the program’s linchpins for success was that communities competed to receive on-the-ground technical assistance from SolSmart Advisors, who are trained professional staff that live and work in the region for approximately six months. SolSmart Advisors work efficiently across local and state boundaries to help communities share ideas and achieve solar energy goals.

“The SolSmart advisor program has allowed the Great Plains Institute and our partners to mobilize local resources for its largest cohort, which encompasses three states in the upper Midwest and includes communities of all sizes, in metro and rural areas,” said Brian Ross, senior program director at the Great Plains Institute. “These resources and technical assistance are invaluable to busy city staff as they address the unique puzzle of how solar development fits into the fabric of their community and enables them to make progress on critical clean energy goals.”

Some stats

129 of the 328 communities have been designated SolSmart Gold, indicating that they have reached the program’s highest level of achievement.

All Gold designated communities have reduced permitting turnaround times to 3 days or less for rooftop solar projects.

An additional 75 communities have achieved SolSmart Silver designation, while 124 have achieved SolSmart Bronze. Nearly one-fourth of all designees (79 in total) started out as Bronze and then worked with the SolSmart technical assistance team to improve local programs and practices and move up to Silver or Gold designation.

189 communities have set up web pages with detailed information on how members of the public can go solar.

226 have ensured that zoning ordinances allow rooftop solar installations in all major areas without excessive restrictions or barriers.

108 have set up group purchase campaigns, providing savings for residents and helping the solar industry reduce customer acquisition costs.

95 have an online permitting submission option, speeding up approvals for installations.

All 328 designees have established a set of unique solar goals to help drive continual improvement in their local solar market.

 

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