Top US Solar Cities Made Possible by Policy as Much as by Sunlight

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*Last Modified: June 15th, 2014
top us solar citiesContrary 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)
Cumulative Solar
PV Capacity Rank
Los Angeles CA 132 1
San Diego CA 107 2
Phoenix AZ 96 3
San Jose CA 94 4
Honolulu HI 91 5
San Antonio TX 84 6
Indianapolis IN 56 7
New York NY 33 8
San Francisco CA 26 9
Denver CO 25 10

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.

Home Solar Will Have Another Boom Year in 2014, ACORE Predicts

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*Last Modified: June 16th, 2014
acore-coverCross-posted from SolarEnergy.net.

This year’s outlook for cleaner fuels is bright, according to a recent report from the American Council on Renewable Energy (ACORE). But it is much brighter for some technologies than others.

Solar and wind specifically, which remain the cleanest of the cleantechs in the emerging global renewables market, have a very promising future. The same cannot be said of less-efficient, more-vulnerable alternatives like biofuels, biomass, biodiesel and ethanol, which create cost-prohibitive emissions and demands for land and water on a planet increasingly succumbing to the expensive droughts, floods and storms wrought by climate change.

ACORE’s 2014 outlook — comprised of solar, wind, geothermal, hydropower, marine energy, biomass, waste-to-energy, ethanol and biodiesel sector performance reports from their respective trade associations — found wide-ranging successes, improvements and opportunities “at the federal, state, and local levels for industry advancement and investment.” But one competitor in particular stood out the most in the Obama administration’s “all of the above” renewable energy mix.

“Solar is the fastest-growing source of renewable energy in the United States, accounting for nearly 30 percent of all new electric generation capacity installed in 2013, second only to natural gas,” said Ken Johnson, vice president of communications for the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA). “In fact, more solar has been brought online in the past 18 months than in the 30 prior years combined.”

Speaking of natural gas, it’s worth noting that the EPA has been underestimating methane emissions from oil and gas drilling sites — by a factor of 100 to 1,000. In the SEIA’s final analysis, included within ACORE’s report after wind, it is solar that remains the hottest alternative. Given that it’s powered by the sun, it promises to only get hotter.

“All totaled, solar is generating enough electricity to effectively power nearly 2.5 million homes,” Johnson said. “That’s a remarkable record of achievement, and 2014 promises to be our best year ever with growth projected at nearly 40 percent.”

That growth could accelerate now that the Department of Energy has offered $4 billion in loan guarantees for renewable energy. Johnson told SolarEnergy.net that the SEIA is still combing through the details of the offer, which, according to Reuters, will “specifically focus on advanced electric grid technology and storage, biofuels that can be used in conventional vehicles, energy from waste products and energy efficiency improvements.” Nevertheless, U.S. Secretary of Energy Dr. Ernest Moniz specifically targeted the success of the administration’s solar investments as rationale for now “focusing on technologies that are on the edge of commercial-scale deployment today.”

Those bleeding-edge technologies are covered in ACORE’s report, most intriguingly waste-to-energy, which it noted could do better than recycling only 29 percent of the nearly 400 million tons of trash generated in the United States in 2011. But like biomass, biofuels and ethanol, waste-to-energy power is complicated by regulatory hurdles and therefore investment disincentives, involving everything from how much land and water it requires to how much carbon and methane it produces.

This is not the case with real-time renewables like solar and wind. Or even sensible-sounding upstarts like marine and thermal power, which ACORE quotes Secretary Moniz as naming the “forgotten renewables.” As climate change worsens, all are putting up numbers and attracting investment. But in the long stretch for Earth’s limited resources, solar and wind are the clear cleantech champs.

Philadelphia Solar Love: City Council Commits to 20K Solar Roofs

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*Last Modified: June 16th, 2014
140402-phillyIf Philadelphia has its way, solar energy could be on its way to become as synonymous with the city as Rocky Balboa and the Liberty Bell. Recently, the city council unanimously passed a resolution aiming to install enough solar capacity to power 20,000 homes by the end of 2025 — an amount that will accelerate Mayor Nutter’s commitment to reach 57.8 MW of solar-generated electricity by 2021.

[Cross-posted from SolarEnergy.net.]

“On one hand it sounds rapid and dramatic — and it is, but if we look at the growth of solar around the country, it is very achievable if we put our minds to it,” said Elowyn Corby, a clean energy associate for PennEnvironment, the nonprofit organization that led the effort to get the resolution passed.

The 20,000-roof goal — which PennEnvironment is hoping to realize through a number of strategies, including a special low-interest loan for solar, tax credits and funding from federal and state sources — translates to an installed capacity of 120 MW. The organization zeroed in on that particular goal after consulting with a number of solar experts and individuals familiar with the range of policies and requirements needed to get the systems up and running within the city.

Many of the people Corby consulted told her that a 120 MW goal for Philadelphia solar was not as ambitious as the city could be, she said, but the organization felt it was important to make sure it set an amount that could be initially achieved as a way to create even more momentum for solar.

Though Pennsylvania is far from being a solar leader, the city of Philadelphia itself has established a strong foundation for sun-powered energy. Philadelphia has already installed between 8-9 MW of solar, Corby says, thanks to an early stimulus from a 2008 grant from the U.S. Department of Energy [PDF] to establish policies and receive technical assistance aimed toward making solar cost-competitive with conventional electricity sources.

Since the 20,000 solar roofs resolution isn’t legally binding, PennEnvironment knows its work to reach the goal has been cut out for them.

“The biggest thing we need to do is demonstrate this is something that Philadelphians care about,” Corby said. “Things like this are much harder to do when you’re not able to demonstrate that the community is behind it — that solar is a communal vision and that people want to see it.”

PennEnvironment kickstarted its public outreach and community organizing by getting 850 residents to sign a petition for the 20,000 solar roofs goal over the course of one week. It’s also working with a coalition of partners, including PennFuture, Clean Air Council, Solar States and Community Energy to develop a working group with city council member Bobby Henon as a vehicle to coordinate its work over the next decade.

“This is just the start,” Corby said. “The resolution is a way to commit to a goal, and now we need to gather the whole community who cares about solar — and keep building.”

Philadelphia sunrise photo CC-licensed by PierTom on Flickr.

Honda Launches a Net-Zero Energy Smart Home Project in California

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*Last Modified: June 17th, 2014
honda smart home“Together, our homes and our cars produce about 44 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions contributing to climate change,” reminds Honda VP of environmental business development Steve Center, in the video overview for its intriguing Smart Home project, which opened this week on the University of California, Davis campus.

Honda’s master plan is to slash that pollution by running on sunshine.

Whether the plan works depends on the U.C. Davis resident lucky enough to shack up in Honda’s “living laboratory” and put its zero-net goals to the test. Empowered by a 9.5 kw photovoltaic system feeding a 10kWh lithium-ion storage battery, which plugs into its complementary direct-current Fit EV, Honda’s net-zero energy Smart Home is a symbiotic experiment in green living — and driving. That may seem strange in Davis, nationally lauded for its bicycling ethos and politics, but U.C. Davis’ West Village is a zero-net paragon.

“What sets Honda Smart Home apart is that it integrates transportation into the home in a very sophisticated manner, while maintaining zero net energy performance,” Honda spokesperson Matt Sloustcher told SolarEnergy, after returning from a walk-through. “We will use the home as a living lab to evaluate new technologies and business opportunities at the intersection of transportation, energy and the environment.”

Honda claims the Smart Home/Fit EV team-up chops 11 tons of C02 emissions annually, and easily leapfrogs California’s zero-net residential construction goals, residing in faraway 2025. Its user-friendly digital home management system smooths the transition to clean(er) living by modulating consumption, especially during peak demand, while the Smart Home overall reportedly consumes less than half the juice of a “similarly sized home in the Davis area.” Checking that pleasing math will be its live-in resident, of course, as well as visiting researchers from U.C. Davis and Northern California’s utility Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E).

honda smart home dashboardThere are other bells and whistles, including a subterranean geothermal pump, carbon-reducing pozzolan in its concrete, LED lighting, passive design and more, although it has yet to nail down an Energy Star or LEED rating. But the realistic test of any optimistic Smart Home is how close it is to market, and how much it will cost homebuyers. SolarEnergy has queried Honda about these major sticking points, and will report back any update. Until then, cross your fingers for a zero-net present instead of a future.

Infographic: How the World Celebrates Earth Hour

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*Last Modified: June 17th, 2014
earth hour logoMark your calendars and set your alarms: Saturday, March 29 at 8:30PM local time marks the sixth annual International Earth Hour, a time when individuals, communities, companies and cities demonstrate their concern about the planet by turning off their lights for an hour and coming together for the planet.

Since Earth Hour’s launch in 2007 as a local event in Sydney, Australia, Earth Hour has expanded across the globe, with 2014 promising to be the biggest event yet. For 2014, the organizers have launched Earth Hour Blue, a global crowdsourcing and crowdfunding platform to engage people around the world in projects that bring environmental and social benefits to their communities.

Last year, hundreds of millions of people, in more than 7,000 cities, towns and municipalities, across 152 countries took part in Earth Hour. In advance of this year’s event, we’ve created a global map highlighting some of the events and impacts from Earth Hour 2013. (Click the image for a larger version.)

 

 earth hour infographic

 This post originally appeared on SolarEnergy.net.

 

Infographic: For World Water Day, Go Solar to Save Water

WWD

*Last Modified: June 18th, 2014
When people think about going solar, they’re usually thinking about their pocketbooks, not the planet. That’s reasonable, of course, since homeowners save an average of $84 a month with solar.

And when people do think about saving the planet with their solar panels, they’re probably thinking more often about the incredible amounts of carbon pollution they’ll be avoiding by switching to clean energy.

But a lesser-known fact about solar is that it also saves lots of water, and on World Water Day — and one that’s happening in the midst of a devastating drought in the West — which is an important fact to highlight.

The infographic below shows how our four of the most-common energy sources use water at every stage. In a nutshell, solar wins across the board.

 

World Water Day infographic

So this World Water Day, go solar — for your pocketbook and for the planet!

Minnesota Becomes First State to Put a Value on Home Solar Power

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*Last Modified: June 19th, 2014
minnesota solar installationOn Wednesday, the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission voted to become the first state in the nation to come up with a methodology for calculating the value of solar power generated by consumers — and not just how much that power is worth to the utility company and its customers, but to society and the global environment as a whole.

[Editor's note: This article, by Kiley Kroh, originally appeared on ThinkProgress, and is reprinted with permission.

As solar energy in particular skyrockets in the U.S., placing a dollar value on that power has been challenging and is often ignored, which makes Minnesota’s effort an even bigger step. “Minnesota has really set itself apart by determining a methodology to calculate the true value of solar to the electricity grid — a value that should include the full range of benefits as well as the costs,” said Mari Hernandez, energy research associate at the Center for American Progress. “This decision could influence other states as they evaluate how to move forward with their own solar-related policies.”

Why do we need to find the ‘value of solar?’

When customers install a solar system on their homes, it doesn’t just provide them with a good feeling that they’re boosting clean energy and cutting back on the electricity they get from fossil fuels. It also provides a clear value to utility companies. Solar generates during peak hours, when a utility has to provide electricity to more people than at other times during the day and energy costs are at their highest. Solar panels actually feed excess energy back to the grid, helping to alleviate the pressure during peak demand. In addition, because less electricity is being transmitted to customers through transmission lines, it saves utilities on the wear and tear to the lines and cost of replacing them with new ones.

The tricky piece of the equation, however, is determining how much that excess solar power produced by customers and sold back to the grid is worth.

Why is Minnesota’s calculation special?

Minnesota’s value of solar is particularly groundbreaking because the commission chose to look beyond the economic value of solar power to the utility and take into consideration the cost to society and the environment that comes from burning fossil fuels. The decision comes after “nearly two years of discussions among state officials, utility representatives and solar advocates,” prompted by a 2013 bill “requiring the state’s energy office to develop a formula that utilities may use to determine how it should compensate customers who generate electricity from solar panels,” Midwest Energy News reported.

In the end, at the urging of environmental groups and the state’s Department of Commerce, the commission voted to adopt the U.S. government’s social cost of carbon figure.

Put simply, the social cost of carbon is the government’s estimate of how much carbon emissions harm the economy — such as the cost to public health, agricultural output, sea-level rise and other damaging effects that stem from carbon pollution and climate change. Clean energy advocates argue that the cost of carbon doesn’t really get accounted for in the current energy economy; even when customers are compensated for generating solar power, that calculation typically doesn’t include the larger benefit that comes from decreasing the amount of carbon pollution that’s emitted into the atmosphere.

One of the dissenting votes in Minnesota’s decision came from Commissioner David Boyd, who argued that the government’s social cost of carbon figure hadn’t been adequately vetted. The U.S. government’s mid-range estimate for the cost of carbon in 2015 recently increased to $37 per ton of carbon dioxide, a number the Natural Resources Defense Council, Environmental Defense Fund, and the Institute for Policy Integrity argued was far too low in a report released Thursday.

As Jeff Spross explained on Climate Progress, estimates vary widely and “the relevant science has put together studies pegging the SCC at anything from $55 per ton, to $100 per ton, to as much as $900 per ton.”

While the social cost of carbon will likely be debated for some time, Minnesota’s decision to incorporate the federal government’s calculation is a significant milestone for states determining the true impact of clean energy.

How will it work?

“Investor-owned utilities will now have the voluntary option of applying to use the value-of-solar formula instead of the retail electricity rate when crediting customers for unused electricity they generate from solar panels,” according to Midwest Energy News.

Even though the new formula is optional, solar customers in Minnesota will be backed up by their current compensation structure, a policy called net metering. Hernandez notes that it’s worth pointing out the differences between this new voluntary tariff and the state’s current net metering policy. Through net metering, customers who generate their own renewable power, such as solar power, receive a credit for any excess electricity they produce beyond what they use on-site. Under a value of solar tariff — also considered a feed-in tariff — customers buy all of the electricity they use on-site from the utility, and then sell all of the solar power they produce to the utility. “Essentially, the state’s net metering policy values customer-generated renewable power used on-site and sent back to the grid at the retail electricity rate,” she explains, “while the voluntary tariff will be based on the state’s methodology, could eventually be set above or below the retail electricity rate, and would not differentiate between power used on-site or put back on the grid.” Rates under the new tariff structure in Minnesota will be set for a 25-year term and adjusted annually for inflation.

As solar establishes itself in several states across the U.S., clean energy advocates, consumers, and utilities are quickly finding themselves at odds over the value of solar power and how much it’s worth to all of the stakeholders involved, as well as to society and the environment as a whole. 43 states and the District of Columbia currently have net metering policies in place and several key solar states, such as Arizona and Colorado, have seenheated battles over the future of net metering. Last year, Arizona added what amounts to a $5 per month surcharge for solar customers and other states are considering similar measures.

Minnesota solar installation photo CC-licensed by Minnesota Solar Challenge on Flickr.

Solar Jobs: Solar Leads the Nation in Creating Jobs

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*Last Modified: June 19th, 2014
clean jobs reportThe last couple of weeks have seen a number of great stories published about the benefits that solar is bringing to the economy and the planet. Not only have we seen state rankings for solar potential from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, a look back at the incredible solar boom of 2013, and a roadmap for reaching 100 percent renewables in every state by 2050 — we’ve also seen how veterans are benefiting from solar jobs in large numbers across the country.

A new report from Environmental Entrepreneurs (E2) adds more good news to the stack, showing that last year, more than 260 projects created more than 78,600 clean energy and clean transportation jobs were announced in 2013. Over the past two years, since E2 has been tracking the data–clean energy and clean transportation has created more than 186,000 jobs in the U.S.

“Our report makes it clear. When we invest in clean energy and clean transportation, we put people to work in every corner of the country,” E2 Executive Director Judith Albert said in a statement. “Whether it’s a new wind farm in Iowa, an energy efficiency retrofit in Massachusetts, or a utility-scale solar array in Nevada, these projects require American ingenuity and labor. The sector is helping stimulate our economy.”

Through the report, solar shines as the biggest creator of new jobs: In total, solar more than 25,600 jobs in generation and manufacturing, far outstripping any other sector. Building energy efficiency claims over 12,500 jobs created in 2013, and public transportation, wind power and smart grid round out the top five job creators.

The chart below shows one of the regional breakouts for clean jobs in 2013 — in the Southeast, solar led the pack in job creation, but robust job growth also happened in energy efficiency, bioenergy and manufacturing.

1401313-jobs-fig1Download the full report from E2, available here [PDF].

SEIA Report Tracks Solar’s Incredible 2013, as the Boom Continues

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*Last Modified: June 5th, 2014
seia reportQuick! Close your eyes and picture the future. Is it solar-powered? If you said no, it’s time to unplug your reality television.

Here’s some brighter programming. Solar Energy Industries Association’s 2013 report on U.S. capacity installations is in (PDF), and it’s beyond safe to say that solar is on fire. Although it should come as a surprise to no one who has been paying attention to the sector, or our wider global energy picture, the photovoltaic year that was increased 40 percent over 2012, installed 4,751 megawatts and booked $13.7 billion in market value.

“The U.S. solar market showed the first real glimpse of its path toward mainstream status,” the SEIA report explains. “The combination of rapid customer adoption, grassroots support for solar, improved financing terms, and public market successes indicated clear gains for solar in the eyes of both the general population and the investment community.”

Predictably, half of that came from California, which is acting like a state that takes disruptive climate change quite seriously. It reigned above the rest with 2,745 MW, the only quadruple-digit winner of the bunch. Perhaps having installation leader SolarCity and efficiency leader Sunpower, whose stock grew 431 percent(!) last year in Cali’s backyard had a little something to do with that. Or it could very well be that historically progressive California has usually embraced the future as others have clung to the past. To wit, as SEIA’s 2013 report infographic notes, “half of all capacity ever added in California was installed in 2013.”

Other states are catching up, however. Last year, 100 percent of new electrical capacity installed in Arizona, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Missouri, Vermont and even gridlocked D.C. came thanks to solar. Arizona came behind California with 700 MW installed last year, which would likely have been higher were it not for a turf battle between utilities and net metering, as SolarEnergy has noted before.

Nationally speaking, however, America is statistically speeding up. In 2013, the sunshine industry accounted for 29 percent of all new electricity generation capacity, a notable increase from 10 percent in 2012, as costs further cratered 15 percent. SEIA forecasts 26 percent growth in photovoltaic installations for this year, mostly in the residential market. It all looks good on paper and in practice.

But no one should break out the party hats. Solar is literally in a death race with so-called natural gas, which accounted for a whopping 46 percent of new electrical generation capacity installed last year, taking first place in the competition for our new energy normal. As coal fades into memory, at least in America, solar is going to have to work even harder to persuade consumers, industry and especially government that it is the only true renewable energy in the global marketplace. Let’s get back to work.

How L.A. is Implementing the Nation’s Largest Solar Feed-in Tariff

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*Last Modified: June 5th, 2014
LA solar roofWhen it comes to rolling out solar across the rooftops, Los Angeles is the city to watch. With 100 MW of installed solar capacity to distribute among building owners who can sell back the energy to the grid, the city’s Department of Water and Power is currently implementing the largest solar feed-in tariff program in the U.S. How is the program progressing, and what sort of lessons has it learned that other cities can apply to their own initiatives?

[Editor's note: Cross-posted from SolarEnergy.net.]

A recently released evaluation of the first year of the feed-in tariff program (also known as Clean LA Solar) provides some insight. The study was commissioned by the Los Angeles Business Council Institute and conducted by UCLA’s Luskin Center for Public Affairs.

To get a handle on its performance in the first year of the estimated 3-year program, Luskin Center researchers J.R. DeShazo and Alex Turek interviewed Clean LA Solar administrators, solar developers and property owners about their experiences during the initial two phases. LA’s Department of Water and Power is tasked with deploying 20 MW during each six-month phase to qualified applicants.

What’s been going on

Since its launch and allocation of 40 MW of rooftop solar capacity (via 20-year contracts to each participant), Clean LA Solar is on track to meet its 100 MW goal by 2016, according to the evaluation, and has accomplished the following:

  • Jobs: Generated 862 job-years (one year of one job) as determined by job-years created in the manufacturing of the solar system’s components (excluding the PV cells), installation, grid connection, operation and management, as well as the utility’s work to upgrade the grid’s network and administration of the feed-in tariff program
  • Sufficient public interest: Received 226 applications for its small project category (up to 3 MW installed capacity for each) and large project (between 30 kW to 150 kW) categories — an “adequate” number, according to DeShazo and Turek
  • Direct investment in the City of Los Angeles: Approximately $122 million from the solar industry (assuming that the average cost of installed solar watt is $3.05)
  • Avoided greenhouse gas emissions: Saved 2.145 billion pounds of CO2 when compared to a coal-generated power plant, or allocated enough renewable energy equivalent to removing 200,000 cars from Los Angeles roadways
  • Solar-powered homes: Allocated enough renewable energy to power approximately 8,640 homes in a year

“Although the first and second tranches [phases] were successful, this study highlights an opportunity to make the process more user-friendly and cost-efficient in the future,” said LA city councilmember Mitchell Englander.

What could be done better?

Researchers identified opportunities for improvement. These include:

  • Monitor pricing to keep smaller projects competitive: Due to economies of scale, current price offerings may not be attractive for smaller project developers if the cost of solar components, capital, or installation rise
  • Enable applications to be rolled over to the next phase: Allow building owner applicants to be automatically considered for the next phase (rather than making them apply all over again if a phase’s 20 MW allocation has already been distributed). This helps meet a common challenge among solar developers to continue working with building owners who will host solar systems on site through the Clean LA Solar program
  • Establish a standardized acceptance and rejection timeframe for applicants: Applicants reported unclear expectations as to how quickly they would hear from Clean LA Solar as to whether they were accepted or not
  • Communications: Applicants would be more likely to understand how to comply with codes and regulations if the city’s building and safety department could develop a Clean LA Solar guide for building owners/program participants. The goals and benefits of the program appear to be poorly understood by the public and the participants, which can hinder program participation
  • Building out programs: Clean LA Solar’s 20-year contract period is not long enough for solar developers to know whether or not it’s worth continued investment for a permanent presence in the city. Policymakers should build out or build upon the program so that companies can make plans to expand their local workforce

Clean energy advocates such as Environment California‘s Michelle Kinman says the program’s success so far is reason to start looking ahead on how the city can commit to an even larger goal of adding on 500 MW to the program to reach a 600 MW of total installed capacity by 2020.

“We want to start now on ramping it up,” said Kinman, clean energy advocate for the Los Angeles-based nonprofit organization. “It’s just scratching the roof of LA’s full power potential.”

Echoing the evaluation’s findings, Kinman said that the city needs to send a signal to developers of a continued and expanded commitment to solar, otherwise they may feel compelled to invest elsewhere.

Environment California is working with the LA Business Council and a coalition of other organizations to get the city to source 20 percent of its power — 1200 MW — from solar by 2020. The timing couldn’t be better, as Los Angeles is currently considering its future energy mix, thanks to a resolution passed last April which commits to being coal-free by 2025, two years ahead of a state mandate.

But while Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti, local and state officials and an array of organizations and community leaders have endorsed the call, the city has yet to formally sign on.

“Rooftops of office buildings, warehouses and apartments within the Los Angeles basin are proving to be outstanding sites for solar power plants,” said Brad Cox, chairman of the LA Business Council Institute. “With about 10,000 acres of rooftops in Los Angeles, we think the sky is the limit for the [Clean Solar LA] solar FiT program.”

Los Angeles solar roof photo CC-licensed by Flickr user Eric Richardson.