*Last Modified: June 15th, 2014
Contrary to popular belief, it’s not the amount of sunshine that drives solar energy growth. Instead, smart local and state policies, utility leadership and strong state renewable portfolio standards are key to that growth, according to a recently released report analyzing solar capacity in 57 U.S. cities.
The total sum of installed solar capacity for all 57 cities currently exceeds the amount installed across the entire U.S. at the end of 2008.
“Solar power is growing much faster than many would have imagined, thanks in great part to local officials who have recognized the environmental and economic benefits,” said Rob Sargent, the energy program director at nonprofit organization Environment America and a lead author of the report titled Shining Cities: At the Forefront of America’s Solar Energy Revolution.
And the top 20 cities with the greatest solar capacity — an amount that collectively weighs in at over 890 MW — is greater than the entire U.S. capacity just six years ago, the report found. Here’s another tidbit from the report: Though its combined geographic area comprises 0.1 percent of land in the U.S., its total installed solar capacity represents 7 percent of U.S. capacity.
Researchers drew from a variety of data sources — including utilities, city and state governments, grid operators, nonprofit organizations and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s Open PV database to rank the 57 cities as of the end of 2013. Only cities where more than a negligible amount of solar had been installed were eligible to be included in the analysis.
The report ranked the top U.S. solar cities as follows:
|Principal City||State||Cumulative Solar
PV Capacity (MW)
PV Capacity Rank
Source: Shining Cities: At the Forefront of America’s Solar Energy Revolution.While each city’s path to solar has varied, the report breaks down common factors that has helped facilitate growth, such as:
- Commitment to specific solar installed capacity goals, such as what San Jose, Denver and Portland are doing by installing solar on their public buildings
- Passing building codes that require new structures to be “solar ready,” thus making installation easier
- Implementing policies that reduce the “soft costs” of solar, such as
- Chicago residents can get solar PV permits in under a month, thanks to its Green Permit Program
- Portland and San Francisco residents can apply online for permits
- San Jose has cut down its permit application to one page and reduced the permit application fee
- Philadelphia reduced its permit fees down to the cost of labor (cutting out the costs of labor in the process)
- Partnerships with local utilities, such as in Seattle’s partnership with Seattle City Light, where renters and apartment dwellers can participate in virtual net metering through buying solar panels in community solar gardens located off site
- Strong state, local and federal policies (among states, Hawaii, California and Delaware are the strongest)
- States can streamline permitting, and set rates that make installing solar attractive
- The federal government can continue to use tax credits and other incentives
Even cities located in states with no renewable energy standards can emerge successful with the right combination of supportive local and state policies. Such is the case of New Orleans, ranked by Environment America as No. 11 nationwide.
The city’s investor-owned utility, Energy New Orleans, turned things around from zero installed capacity in 2007 to a total of 22 MW over seven years — in part from reducing the amount of paperwork needed to apply for a solar permit from 50 pages to two pages, as well as requiring that net metering be allowed. Louisiana also passed solar tax incentives in 2007.
New Bedford, Mass., is one city that’s linked solar growth to more than just a healthy economy. With a low income population, one might guess that the city would not prioritize renewable energy. Yet in 2010, it established an Energy Office tasked with installing 10 MW of solar power by 2015.
“New Bedford’s renewable power program is strengthening our city’s economy, our education system, and our environment, while saving taxpayers considerable money in the years ahead,” said Mayor Jon Mitchell.
How did it do this? The city shrewdly linked its solar development goals to progress on other socioeconomic issues it wished to improve on, including brownfields use, education, job training and local industry growth. Specific projects included:
- Creating a program to promote solar farms development on brownfields land
- Setting up a solar farm on brownfields land next to a school where teachers will take students out to the land to learn about renewable energy, as well as solar industry job skills
- Installing solar on a group of public buildings, including a gym, three schools and a government agency
As a result of this multi-pronged approach, the city is now on track to accomplish its goal over a year ahead of time.
“Every city in America should be doing what we are doing here in New Bedford,” Mitchell concluded.