How Local Governments Can Meet Ambitious Solar Energy Goals
The clout of local governments should never be underestimated. When Xcel Energy recently made the monumental decision to pursue a 100% carbon reduction goal by 2050, Chairman and CEO Ben Fowke noted that local communities are already leading the charge. “When your customers are asking for this over and over, you really do listen,” Fowke said in a recent article. He specifically mentioned the 100% renewable goals of several Colorado communities, including Boulder, Denver, Breckenridge, and Pueblo, as factors moving the utility to adopt its new target.
Although we often look to state- and federal-level institutions for the advancement of renewable energy, local governments may offer the best promise for a carbon-free future. And solar, the most abundant energy source on earth, is a critical piece in the emissions reduction puzzle. Today, many communities are trying to figure out how to unlock their potential for solar energy development and remove any obstacles that stand in their way.
All Solar is Local
Local governments across the U.S. understand the benefits associated with solar energy. They know it’s an energy source that’s better for the environment, and good for the bottom line of solar adopters and the local workforce. Solar employs more than twice as many people as the coal industry, and solar jobs have nearly tripled since 2010. But while solar is expanding rapidly across the nation, we have a long way to go: Less than 2% of the nation’s energy currently comes from solar.
So, what’s limiting uptake in communities across the country? Well, that’s obviously a complicated and entangled question. To paraphrase Tolstoy, “each unsolarized community is unsolarized for its own reason.”
National and state policies certainly have an effect, but local governments also play a decisive role that can make or break the solar industry in their area. With 39,044 “general purpose” local governments, the United States is a patchwork of county, municipal, and township jurisdictions. This does not even account for the over 50,000 “special purpose” local governments (e.g. school districts) that also exert authority over certain regulations and policies. Each “Authority Having Jurisdiction” (AHJ) may treat solar in a unique way by requiring a specific permitting process, or instituting zoning requirements for solar or offering solar-specific incentives. This means that AHJs play a significant role in how, where, and to what extent solar is installed locally.
A Rough Time with Solar “Soft Costs”
Through its decision making (or lack thereof), an AHJ can either promote or discourage solar energy adoption. Specifically, AHJs can reduce the price of solar for residents and businesses by influencing the “soft costs” of installing solar energy. Soft costs are the non-hardware costs associated with an installation (think everything that isn’t placed on a roof or in the ground) and represent almost 70% of the total cost of a residential solar energy system. A few examples of soft costs include:
- Permitting, installation, and interconnection
- Customer acquisition
- Sales taxes
- Supply chain costs
Although certain soft costs (such as installer profits) are outside of an AHJ’s control, others are firmly within its bounds to address. Two classic examples are:
- A classic function of local governments, the permitting process is used to approve new construction or renovations. Permits may be required for minor items, like sheds or fences, or for the construction of entire buildings. Most communities within the U.S. (but not necessarily abroad) require permits (at least one) for the installation of solar energy. If this permitting process is poorly defined, overly burdensome, or unnecessarily lengthy, it can add significant costs to a solar installation. Streamlining permitting processes or providing instant permits could save hundreds of dollars, if not thousands, for consumers.
- Local zoning can greatly affect how, where, and to what extent solar is deployed in a community. A zoning ordinance defines the type of development that can occur and its location, as well as any specifications/restrictions for that development. Solar energy installation is a type of development and therefore falls under the jurisdiction of these ordinances. By restricting solar (such as by necessitating screening, barring it from roofs facing the street, or requiring certain aesthetic characteristics), local governments add to the cost of installation and may make solar inaccessible to certain residents and businesses. Similarly, costs rise and installation numbers fall when local governments require special zoning permits (such as conditional use permits) for small, rooftop solar arrays. Finally, silence in a zoning ordinance can lead to solar being treated inconsistently and may dissuade installation.
How Local Governments can (and do) Make a Difference
My own experience working with communities on solar energy comes through SolSmart, a nationwide program to help local governments reduce obstacles to solar development. It is funded by the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Energy Technologies Office and led by my organization, The Solar Foundation, along with the International City/County Management Association and a team of experts on solar energy and local governance. The program offers no-cost technical assistance to municipalities and counties to reduce solar soft costs, and provides these local governments with an opportunity to earn national recognition as being “open for solar business.”
A cornerstone of SolSmart is its list of over 90 actions that will help promote solar locally. Developed by a group of expert stakeholders from the public, private, and nonprofit sectors, this list provides a comprehensive overview of the most critical actions available to local governments. Although it would be time intensive to address each of these 90+ actions in this blog post, here are few overarching themes throughout:
Be transparent and explicit.
Silence is not golden when it comes to solar energy. Regardless of how permissive a local government is for solar energy installations, it should provide detailed instructions for permitting and inspecting solar energy systems, reference and provide metrics for solar in local plans, and address solar development in zoning ordinances.
A local government should never assume it knows the problem or the solution. Instead, it should engage local solar installers, residents, businesses, utilities, and other stakeholders to get a better sense of the local solar context and how to best address solar within the community. Additionally, local governments can play a key role in educating the community on solar energy.
Solar and solar-related technologies (electric vehicles, battery storage, etc.) evolve, which means even the most solar-friendly cities should periodically revisit their local programs and policies. Similarly, with staff turnover, it’s crucial to offer ongoing training on solar best practices and local processes.
Work on a regional scale.
Local governments should try to partner with regional organizations, such as Councils of Governments and nonprofits, or other municipalities or counties to adopt unified processes or programs. “Regional harmonization,” or sharing the same policies as neighboring jurisdictions, can go a long way toward creating a solar-friendly environment.
From Charleston County, South Carolina, to a group of communities in the Chicagoland region, to Orlando, Florida, communities across the country are turning these best practices into reality. SolSmart currently boasts over 220 local government designees throughout 37 states and Washington, D.C, which represents over 64 million Americans. (The four Colorado communities that received a shout out from Xcel Energy — Boulder, Denver, Breckenridge, and Pueblo — are all SolSmart designees as well.) Yet, it is critical that even more local governments nationwide consider these best practices and determine the most appropriate way to integrate solar into their communities.
On the Horizon: Automated Permit Processing
Communities interested in addressing solar locally can still access SolSmart’s offerings through October 2020. Beyond SolSmart, there are a slew of smart city and clean energy initiatives that cater to local governments. One of the most innovative opportunities is our Solar Automated Permit Processing (SolarAPP) campaign. Led by The Solar Foundation and the Solar Energy Industries Association and backed by prominent industry stakeholders, SolarAPP seeks to fundamentally reshape solar permitting and dramatically reduce the cost of installing solar by creating an instantaneous online permitting solution for local governments. For local government adopters, this campaign has the potential to expand the number of solar installations within their communities. Simultaneously, it would allow governments to be better stewards of taxpayers’ money while maintaining the utmost consideration for the health and safety of residents.
Regardless of how they choose to move forward, we can be confident that local governments will continue to lead on renewable energy issues for years to come. As bastions of innovation and progress, they are perfectly situated to advance efforts toward a carbon-free world. By taking a close look at the procedural obstacles to solar development and how to overcome them, local governments can do a great deal to help lead us there.
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