Smart Local Policies Will Build a Renewable Energy Future for Cities
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Cities are innovating, companies are pivoting, and start-ups are growing. Like you, every urban practitioner has a remarkable story of insight and challenge from the past year.
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Over the past few months, I’ve spoken with dozens of elected officials and municipal staff from cities large and small, red and blue, West Coast to South East, and everywhere in between. Across the board, the vast majority envision a future powered by clean, renewable, solar energy. They understand the myriad benefits that the growth of solar can bring to their communities, from the environmental value of a renewable energy source that doesn’t pump global warming pollution into the air, to the resilience and independence provided by locally produced energy, to the economic perks of good local jobs. And they’re ready to start building that future in their own backyards.
Thanks to the work of mayors, city managers, sustainability directors, and other urban leaders, cities are driving the clean energy revolution across America. Solar is taking off nationwide, and now provides enough energy to power the equivalent of over 9.5 million American homes, according to the Solar Energy Industry Association (SEIA).
Environment America found that America’s 20 leading solar cities, which together represent just 0.1 percent of U.S. land area, accounted for five percent of total U.S. solar PV capacity as of the end of 2016. The cities that top the solar charts are setting the bar for the rest of the country, and they are doing it through strong, pro-solar public policies.
This post examines three types of policies and programs that act as the smart-policy foundation behind leading solar-powered cities. This is by no means an exhaustive list of everything that cities can do to go solar, but offers a basic menu from which cities can develop their own set of smart policies to spur solar energy growth in their communities.
- Leading the Way: Commitments and Municipal Projects that Establish a Vision
- Removing Obstacles: Policies to Make Solar Cheaper and Easier to Install
- Expanding Access: Programs that Make Solar Accessible to All
Leading the Way
Setting ambitious solar energy goals and demonstrating commitment through municipal solar installations are both fundamental in setting the tone for solar growth in a community. Goal setting provides an opportunity to institutionalize a shared vision of a solar-powered future, and a strong goal ensures that progress towards that goal becomes embedded in all future city decisions. Solar commitments come in many forms, and cities may establish different types of goals depending on how far they’ve already come and what their solar potential looks like.
Some cities have established solar goals as a part of a broader commitment to 100% renewable energy, while others have made stand-alone solar commitments. Salt Lake City, for one, committed to powering a significant portion of its government operations with solar energy as a step towards its goal to power the community with 100% renewable energy by 2032. The City of Atlanta, on the other hand, first made a stand-alone commitment to going solar in 2015, then in 2017 committed to 100% renewable energy by 2035.
Solar commitments may apply to an entire community, or they may be restricted to only city government energy usage. For example, the City of Albuquerque has committed to source 25% of electricity for city buildings only from solar by 2025, while Philadelphia has a community-wide goal of 20,000 solar roofs by the same year. When establishing a solar goal for your community, the most important thing is to make it as ambitious and visionary as possible so that it truly drives progress toward a renewable energy future.
Once you’ve established a commitment, solar installations on city buildings and facilities will allow you to follow through and lead by example. Well-designed city projects will not only help the city save money on electricity bills and meet its energy goals, but they’ll also provide a model of success that can encourage residents to follow suit. The more high-visibility your project, the more educational value it can add. Installations on city halls and other official buildings, on schools, and in public spaces like urban parks are great options to explore.
Clearing the way for solar energy by addressing common barriers is a critical step in boosting solar at the local level. Much of the growth that we’ve already seen in solar energy can be attributed to strong public policy, falling costs and increased availability of PV panels themselves. Now, non-hardware costs, like planning costs and permit application fees, make up about two-thirds of the total price of residential solar systems. So, by reducing those costs and streamlining project approval processes, cities can significantly reduce barriers for consumers.
The SolSmart Program, funded through the U.S. Department of Energy SunShot Initiative, acts as a one-stop shop providing assistance for local governments to reduce these barriers through effective policies at no cost. The program encourages policies that guarantee the right to install solar energy systems on all properties within a city, reduce the time and difficulty of permit application processes, and lower the soft costs of installing solar systems. Cities that go beyond reducing soft costs with additional economic incentives for solar may be even more successful in encouraging growth. New York City is a prime example, offering both an exemption from the local sales tax for residential solar panels and a property tax credit for homeowners who install them.
A community can only reach its full solar potential if all of its members can access solar energy systems. That means ensuring that home and apartment dwellers alike, regardless of income, ownership, or ability to handle up-front costs, can all take part. There are a wide variety of programs and policies out there that help make solar energy accessible to all, and implementing even just a few can take solar to the next level in your community. Some popular measures include:
Financing and Loan Programs
Cities like Milwaukee are making solar energy accessible to low-income households, nonprofits, and even small businesses through loan and financing programs. Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) financing programs, for example, allow property owners to borrow money from a specially created fund, repaying the loan over time through their property taxes. Alternatively, cities can also partner with local financial institutions to offer low-interest loans for solar projects.
Bulk Purchasing Programs
Bulk purchasing programs open the door to solar by significantly driving down the cost of solar installations for everyone involved. Cities can partner with nonprofit organizations, groups of homeowners or businesses, and solar installers to coordinate “Solarize” programs for their communities and dramatically increase their number of solar roofs.
Community solar programs allow customers to support and benefit from solar power projects in their communities, even if the solar panels are not connected to their own electric meters. Power Purchase Agreements (PPAs) are one form of community solar; PPAs allow residents to purchase shares of solar power from other electric utility accounts, making solar an option for apartment dwellers and renters who can’t add solar panels to their own roofs.
We are at a solar energy tipping point. We know that a rapid transition to clean, renewable energy is the only way to ensure a liveable climate, the health of our environment, and a future of vibrant communities. Getting more pro-solar policies in the books in cities across the country will mean millions more Americans going solar in the next decade, putting the country on a path to a renewable energy future. Policies that help cities lead by example, remove obstacles to solar, and expand renewable energy access lay the foundation for building that future, one city at a time.
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