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Solar power in cities is growing fast – and building on its own success.

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From Anchorage to Miami, solar power is expanding rapidly across the U.S. That’s the takeaway from Frontier Group’s latest report,“Shining Cities: Top U.S. Cities for Solar Energy.” This report is our seventh ranking of solar PV capacity in top cities from every state. In 2014, when the first Shining Cities report was released, only eight cities had enough solar power per capita (50 watts per person) to be ranked “Solar Stars.” This year’s report features 26 Solar Stars in every region of the country – and a dozen more just below the cutoff, poised to soon make the jump.

U.S. cities by total installed solar PV capacity, end of 2019

The growth of solar in cities is one of the most visible examples of the new reality of renewable energy: it’s popular, cheap and growing faster than ever. Our report has tracked 57 cities in every version since 2014. Since then, 25 of those cities – 45 percent –  have quadrupled their solar capacity. In 2019,40% of all new electric generation came from solar power - more than any other source of energy. For the first time ever, renewable power such as wind and solar is projected togenerate more electricity in the U.S. this year than coal.

Total solar PV capacity of the 57 cities included in every edition of Shining Cities

As momentum for solar energy continues to grow, the technology is being lifted by its own success. One way this works is through the social contagion effect – essentially, good peer pressure. One study found that you’remuch more likely to install solar panels if a neighbor close to you installs them, rather than someone four miles away. You’re also much more likely to install them soon after that neighbor installs them, because the effect diminishes over time. Solar panels that are visible from the street are more likely to motivate installations in your neighborhood than those that aren’t – “further suggesting thatour neighbors’ behavior affects our own.”

Good peer pressure is also behind the improving policy landscape supporting solar power’s rapid rise. Coalitions likeMayors for Solar Energy bring together municipal leaders to test out strategies and policies that encourage solar deployment – like expedited permitting, to reduce the “soft costs” of solar, and net metering, to ensure panel owners receive the full value of the energy they produce. Local leaders have the power to lead the way in making their cities welcoming places for solar power development. These cities can serve as examples for local and regional “rivals” who don’t want to get outpaced in deploying the cheapest and cleanest form of power available. 

The reality of 2020 is that solar power, like most things, won’t be expanding as fast as originally projected. By tearing down so much of everything we took for granted, the COVID-19 pandemic is giving us, at tremendous cost, the opportunity to rethink the world into which we’re going to reemerge. We have an unexpected opportunity to recognize the value of solar, which improves air quality, public health and electric resilience, and build it into our future.

As Shining Cities 2020 shows, lots of groundwork is already in place as we begin the push to build back better than before. Cities that are already enjoying the benefits of solar don’t want to go back to polluting fossil fuels; instead, they’re challenging themselves and their peers in the push for100 percent renewable energy. The momentum behind the growth of solar power is matched only by the technology’s potential for helping cities build a brighter, more sustainable future. 

Photo: Courtesy of city of Alburquerque