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Most U.S. Cities Have Doubled Their Solar Energy Capacity in the Last 5 Years. But Continued Growth is not Guaranteed

For the past six years, Frontier Group and Environment America Research & Policy Center have tracked the growth of solar energy in America’s largest cities in our report series Shining Cities. Of the 57 cities we’ve surveyed in all six editions of the report, 81 percent more than doubled their total installed solar photovoltaic (PV) capacity between 2013 and 2018.

That’s important progress, especially given the mounting crisis of climate change. But even though solar power continues to become more affordable with every passing year, the rapid growth of solar energy in our cities is not guaranteed to continue. The pro-solar policies that have made this rapid growth possible are now being challenged – and sometimes overturned – across the country. Since cities and the rest of the country have only begun to tap the full potential of solar energy, now is not the time to be going backwards, but rather to create the policies needed to move toward an energy system powered by 100 percent clean, renewable energy.

In Shining Cities, we primarily rank cities based on their solar capacity per city resident. The cities with the most solar PV installed per resident are the “Solar Stars” – cities with 50 or more watts of solar PV capacity installed per city resident. When we began tracking solar capacity in cities in 2013, only eight of the cities surveyed had enough solar PV per capita to be ranked as “Solar Stars.” This year, 23 cities have earned the title.

The Number of “Solar Stars” (Cities with >50W of Solar PV per Capita) in Each Edition of Shining Cities

 

This Year’s Leaders: The Top Ten Cities for Installed Solar PV Capacity Per Capita, 2018

Per Capita Rank City State Per Capita Solar PV Installed (Watts-DC/person) Change in Per Capita Rank 2017 to 2018 Total Solar PV Installed (MW-DC) Total Solar PV Rank
1 Honolulu HI 646.4 0 226.5 4
2 San Diego CA 247.5 0 351.4 2
3 San Jose CA 194.9 0 201.7 5
4 Burlington VT 187.3 +1 7.9 37
5 Las Vegas NV 162.2 +1 104.1 9
6 Phoenix AZ 145.3 +1 236.2 3
7 Indianapolis IN 143.5 -3 123.8 8
8 Riverside CA 138.3 +1 45.3 16
9 Denver CO 129.6 -1 91.4 10
10 Albuquerque NM 128.9 +2 72.0 11

Check out the report to see where your city ranks.

Through writing this report series we’ve found that pro-solar policies – more than the availability of sunshine – dictate where solar energy takes off. Leading solar cities can be found in every region of the country. Leaders in per capita solar capacity by census region include Honolulu in the Pacific region, Las Vegas in the Mountain region, Indianapolis in the North Central region, San Antonio in the South Central region, Washington, D.C., in the South Atlantic and Burlington, Vermont, in the Northeast.

Major U.S. Cities by Installed Solar PV Capacity Per Capita, End of 2018 (Watts per Person)

In the cities where solar energy succeeds, utilities fairly credit solar homeowners for the energy they supply to the grid, installing solar panels is relatively easy and hassle-free, attractive options for solar financing exist, and local governments and officials are committed to supporting solar energy development. (Read the report for specific steps that local and state governments and the federal government can take to support solar energy adoption.)

Take Hartford, Connecticut, for example. Hartford is located in an area that is not very sunny compared with other areas of the county, but in 2016, it was one of the first cities to earn the Gold designation from SolSmart, a program funded by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Solar Energy Technologies Office (SETO) (formerly known as the SunShot Initiative). Hartford received the designation for providing a streamlined permitting process for small solar energy systems, creating an online permitting checklist to guide installers and community members, and creating a clean energy task force, among other steps. Thanks to these efforts, Hartford’s solar capacity has grown in each edition of Shining Cities – most of all during 2018. In the first edition of the report, which looked at cities’ capacities at the end of 2013, Hartford was a “Solar Beginner” with only 3 watts of solar capacity per resident. This year, for the first time, Hartford became a “Solar Star,” the highest designation, with 50 watts of solar PV installed per city resident.

The story of Hartford and other cities that have experienced rapid growth in solar energy is a source of hope amid the stark challenge of climate change. But solar energy in America is at a tipping point. In more than half of states, electricity from solar panels is cost-competitive with electricity generated by fossil fuels when all factors are taken into account – including important incentives and subsidies – poising solar energy for mass adoption. The rapid spread of low-cost solar power, however, poses a threat to the business models of fossil fuel interests and some utilities, which have united in an effort to slow the progress of solar energy. In 2018 alone, 36 states took action related to residential fixed charges or minimum balance increases to electric bills, some of which could cause solar customers to pay as much for electricity as regular customers, even though they use much less electricity from the grid. Over the past few years, many states have also passed or considered cuts to net metering, the critical practice of fully crediting solar energy owners for the excess energy they provide to the grid – threatening the continued growth of solar energy in those states.

Indianapolis, for example, has been one of the leading cities in every edition of Shining Cities. The city of Indianapolis has supported the growth of solar energy for many reasons, noting that it improves public and environmental health and reduces the burden of household energy costs for its residents. In May 2017 though, the state of Indiana passed a law that will gradually reduce the length of time that solar customers can participate in net metering. The bill will also decrease the net metering compensation rate for new customers starting in 2022 and allow utilities to stop accepting new net metering customers once they make up a certain amount of a utility’s capacity. Solar energy business owners warned that the new law would hurt the state’s thriv­ing solar energy market going forward. And indeed, even though there will still be net metering benefits for those who install solar panels before 2022, the bill received so much media attention that the rate at which citizens are installing solar panels has dropped significantly. In the last couple of years, Indianapolis’ solar energy growth has essentially stagnated and several cities have overtaken Indianapolis in the Shining Cities rankings.

The outcome of battles such as this will determine how rapidly cities and the rest of the nation can gain the benefits of solar energy.

For all the growth in solar energy over the last five years, American cities have only begun to tap their solar energy potential. A National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) study estimated that small building rooftops alone are technically capable of hosting enough solar energy to cover the annual electricity needs of more than 121 million American homes – about as many as exist in the U.S. today. Solar panel installations on large building rooftops and utility-scale installations could take us even further.

The urgent need to reduce America’s contribution to global warming – along with the other environmental and public health threats posed by fossil fuel production and use – means that we cannot afford to wait to realize this potential. Now is the time for cities, as well as states and the federal government, to recommit to the policies that can move us closer to an electricity system powered by 100 percent renewable energy – including policies that enable us to take advantage of the potential for clean, solar energy in our cities.

Splash photo: Solar panels generate power at the Market One commercial building in Des Moines, Iowa. Credit: Jared Heidemann, U.S. Department of Energy via Flickr, CC-BY-1.0.