Shining Cities: Strong Policies Help Cities Invest in a Solar Future

Which U.S. cities are leading the charge toward a solar-powered future? Our new report, Shining Cities: Harnessing the Benefits of Solar Energy in America, ranks U.S. cities for thier installed solar PV capacity and discusses the innovative policies that are moving cities up in the rankings.

Judee Burr

Policy Analyst

What will cities of the future look like? If recent trends are any indication, clean, solar energy will become a prominent part of our city infrastructure. In our new report, Shining Cites: Harnessing the Benefits of Solar Energy in America, we rank 65 U.S. cities for their installed solar PV capacity and show that solar power is already transforming the way cities work.

Solar energy is a smart choice: it reduces air pollution, creates more sustainable electric grids, supports local jobs and helps cities fight global warming. Leading cities are recognizing that solar power is the way of the future – as of the end of 2014, the top 20 cities in our report made up 6.5 percent of U.S. solar PV capacity, while making up only 0.1 percent of U.S. land area. Our leading cities demonstrate that there are multiple pathways to creating a “solar friendly” city. City and state decision makers are implementing a variety of smart policies to promote the development of this clean energy source, thereby enabling city residents to “go solar.”

In many of our leading cities, local decision-makers set ambitious goals for solar energy adoption and implemented policies to help achieve them. City policies can streamline the solar permitting process, reduce costs by helping residents buy solar panels in bulk, reduce excess fees for permitting and installation, and remove red tape, like height restrictions, that can make installing solar panels a hassle. For example:

  • The Phoenix City Council set a goal of getting 15 percent of the city’s electricity from renewable sources by 2025. Investing in solar energy is helping the city achieve that goal – the city ranked 3rd in our report for total solar PV capacity with 115 megawatts (MW) of solar PV installed within the city limits.
  • Denver (ranked 8th for total solar PV capacity) and San Francisco (ranked 11th for total solar PV capacity) have reduced fees and processing wait times to encourage residents to install solar panels.
  • Sacramento (ranked 14th for total solar PV capacity) and Austin (ranked 17th for solar PV capacity) passed laws to allow solar installations to exceed height restrictions in the city zoning code.
  • Many cities have implemented “solarize” programs to connect solar installers to many customers at a time, thereby reducing costs for solar installers and consumers: these include Solarize Boston, Solarize Charlotte and Solarize Asheville.

State-level policies that support solar development create a critical foundation that local leaders can build on to bring solar power to cities. These basic policies include: renewable energy standards that require electric utilities to invest in solar energy, strong net metering policies that allow customers to receive fair credit for the electricity that they send back to the grid, community solar policies that allow many people to invest in and reap the benefits of individual solar installations, policies that allow “third-party financing” of solar projects, and laws that allow the establishment of “PACE financing” districts to help residents and businesses finance solar projects.

  • New Jersey and Delaware have strong renewable energy standards requiring utilities to invest in solar energy. These policies have driven city solar development: Newark, New Jersey, and Wilmington, Delaware, rank among our top ten cities for solar PV installed per resident.
  • States that invest money and resources in solar power see results. Through the NY-Sun Initiative, Governor Cuomo has invested $1 billion in the development of solar power in New York, and, in 2014, he created the NY Prize competition to incentivize the development of microgrids throughout the state. New York City ranks 9th for total solar PV capacity installed.
  • California’s Million Solar Roofs Initiative transformed the state’s solar energy market by providing financial incentives for solar energy installations to make solar energy systems affordable and create a self-sustaining solar industry. Strong state goals play a key role in driving solar development in the six California cities we evaluated, all of which ranked among the top 25 cities in for total capacity.
  • Although Minneapolis did not break the top 40 in our total capacity rankings this year, Minnesota’s community solar program is poised to incentivize the growth of solar energy in the state. There are 400 megawatts of community solar projects in line for approval in Minnesota.  A handy infographic from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance shows that Minnesota’s community solar program does an exceptional job of supporting solar development by  (1) not limiting the number of projects that can be enrolled in the program, (2) allowing for a wide range of project sizes and range of project participants, and (3) paying investors for all electricity sold back to the grid.

These are just a few examples of policies that are allowing cities across the country to benefit from local clean energy development.

As I discussed in my lay of the land blog post on solar energy, a movement to change the way we produce electricity is underway. Now is the time for cities to join it. The most recent report from Solar Energy Industries Association and GTM Research on the state of the U.S. solar market shows that, in 2014, U.S. solar electric capacity grew 30 percent and was the second-highest source of new electricity generating capacity. The cost of solar panels has rapidly fallen and continues to plummet, and the solar industry is bringing jobs to town – with employment growing “nearly 20 times faster than the national average employment growth rate” between November 2013 and 2014. Government agencies, solar companies and non-profit groups continue to find ways to make solar energy easier to acquire, install, and use efficiently on homes, businesses, stadiums, and even roads. Transitioning away from polluting sources of electricity to clean renewable power is only becoming more urgent, and solar energy is one of the best and cleanest alternatives.


Judee Burr

Policy Analyst

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