A Landmark for the “SolSmart” Designation

Back to Fall 2018: Volume 107, Number 3

Mike McGrath

In May 2018, Lee’s Summit, Missouri, became the 200th local government in the country to be recognized by the SolSmart Program, a combined effort off the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), the International City/County Management Association, the National Civic League and more than a dozen partner organizations. The goal of the program is to make solar energy more affordable and easier for homeowners and businesses to adopt.

Like other SolSmart designees, Lee’s Summit is paving the way for solar by:

  • Creating an online permitting checklist, increasing transparency for community members and solar installers;
  • reviewing local zoning codes and identified restrictions that intentionally or unintentionally prohibit solar PV development;
  • allowing solar by-right accessory use in all zones (so solar installations don’t require special permits or hearings);
  • cross-training both inspection and permitting staff on solar PV; and
  • providing a streamlined permitting pathway for small PV systems.

“The City of Lee’s Summit is committed to promoting renewable energy development and has been taking steps to make it easier for residents and businesses to go solar by streamlining the permitting process and removing barriers to solar development in our planning and zoning procedures,” said Lee’s Summit Mayor Bill Baird, according to a news release from SolSmart. “Solar-friendly changes such as these will reduce the time and expense it takes to install a solar energy system.”

Energy experts have found that more than half of expenses associated with adopting solar energy are related to “soft‐costs,” that is, things like financing, permitting, inspection, installation, and other costs unrelated to the hardware. In most cases, these soft costs are passed along to the consumers, a disincentive that limits the market for solar energy.

Fortunately, local governments are uniquely positioned to reduce soft costs and take action to promote the use of solar energy in their communities.

In April 2016, the DOE’s Solar Energies Technology Office partnered with ICMA and other organizations to launch a designation and technical assistance program that recognized communities that are leading the way on solar energy and encourages others to expand their local solar energy markets.

Communities that meet the criteria of the program are designed SolSmart, Gold, Silver or Bronze, based on their level of achievement across a range of solar friendly categories.

“Local governments are on the front lines of our national clean energy transformation, taking bold action to cut costs and expand solar energy use,” said Andrea Luecke, president and executive director of The Solar Foundation, according to the SolSmart news release. “SolSmart has helped 200 local governments and counting reduce administrative hurdles to solar, making them more resilient, more competitive, and well-positioned to attract new jobs and economic growth.”

The 200 designated SolSmart communities represent 35 states and the District of Columbia, with a total population of over 59 million Americans. The designees range from small midwestern towns to large cities on the East Coast. Asheville, North Carolina, is a designee, as are New York City, Atlanta, Chicago, to name a few.

“SolSmart helps local governments tap the vast potential of solar energy to create jobs, strengthen the economy and power smarter, more resilient communities of the future,” said ICMA Executive Director Marc Ott. “It takes courageous leadership from local governments to prioritize renewable energy, and SolSmart will continue to support them, helping to put the systems in place to attract solar industry investment and to generate the economic development and local jobs that come with it” (Source: SolSmart News release).

According to the SolSmart website, the program recognizes communities that:

  • Cut permitting costs and save money for customers. A cumbersome permitting process alone can add $700 to the cost of a single solar project. Gold-designated communities have reduced permitting time to no more than three days, which saves consumers and local governments time and money. For example, West Palm Beach, Florida started a “walk-through” permit process that takes as little as 15 minutes.
  • Engage with community members to encourage solar development. For example, a SolSmart Advisor helped the cities of Goshen and South Bend, Indiana launch Solarize campaigns, which allow residents to come together to install solar at a discounted cost. Together, these projects led to nearly 100 new solar installations.
  • Reduce zoning obstacles to solar. All SolSmart designees have reviewed their zoning ordinances for obstacles to solar development. Additionally, SolSmart Silver communities have ensured their zoning ordinances do not require special permits or hearings. For example, Brownsville, Texas adopted a zoning ordinance that will help facilitate the growth of new solar projects.
  • Streamline inspection processes. For example, Pima County, Arizona launched a “remote inspections” process to provide same-day approval on solar and other projects.
  • Encourage local job growth. Solar energy employs more than 250,000 Americans, and the number of solar jobs has nearly tripled since 2010, according to The Solar Foundation’s National Solar Jobs Census. A SolSmart designation positions a city or county to bring these jobs to the local community.

Other SolSmart communities have installed solar panels on government buildings, developed solar-friendly guidelines for construction projects, organized community-wide solar workshops, and provided training to staff.

Charleston County, South Carolina first achieved the Bronze designation, then went on to earn Silver and Gold designations. The city streamlined solar processes and organized resources to make going solar faster, simpler, and more transparent for residents and businesses alike. The county also adopted the most recent International Code Council codes on solar PV, installed solar on local facilities, reviewed local zoning codes to identify any restrictions to solar development and allowed solar by-right accessory use in all zones

“Our primary goal is to keep helping citizens,” said Kevin Limehouse, Charleston County Operations Officer. “Charleston County is growing, and we want to make sure we can share our resources with all community members and help them with their solar needs.”

To qualify for the Bronze designation, a community must earn 60 “innovation points” across a range of categories as determined by a panel of experts. Silver designees must first earn 100 points and Gold designees must earn 200 innovation points. The categories include construction codes, utility engagement, community engagement, market development and finance.

One of the many criteria for which Solsmart applicants can get points is civic engagement. Communities pursuing SolSmart designation are eligible for no-cost technical assistance from a team of national solar experts. The five-year goal for the Solsmart team is to have 300 communities become designated, and the National Civic League is hoping to see the communities use civic engagement practices in creating and furthering local community solar goals, as well as sustainability in general.

Mike McGrath is director of research and publications for the National Civic League and editor of the National Civic Review.

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