Launched two years ago in April 2016, SolSmart is a national designation and technical assistance program funded by the US Department of Energy that promotes the use of best practices by local governments to ensure greater ease and affordability for residents and businesses to install and access solar energy.
Programs like SolSmart are becoming increasingly necessary. Now more than ever, it is crucial that we encourage communities to move towards renewable energy sources like solar. Not only does solar promote jobs and mitigate climate change, but it can also decrease the prevalence of serious health outcomes caused by pollution. This program is unique because it recognizes cities’ capacity to lead and innovate, and gives them the tools to do so from the ground up.
SolSmart’s 200 designated local governments are located in 35 states plus Washington, D.C. and these communities represent 59 million residents. The two states with the highest concentration of SolSmart communities are Colorado and Illinois, both with 18 designees each. California is a close third with 17 designees.
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There are 84 designees with a population under 50,000 residents, 63 designees with a population between 50,000 and 200,000 and 53 with a population over 200,000. As of the May 1 milestone, 89 of the 200 designated communities are members of the National League of Cities. Any local government is eligible for SolSmart designation and technical assistance, regardless of size and previous experience with solar energy.
SolSmart uses a set of criteria to baseline a community’s solar processes. Those that meet a predetermined set of requirements receive Gold, Silver or Bronze designation. If a local government hasn’t met the minimum requirements, the SolSmart team works with a community to achieve its desired level of designation.
Furthermore, with the help of SolSmart’s technical assistance team, at least 36 communities have achieved a higher level of designation. For example, Red Wing, Minnesota moved from Bronze to Silver after staff completed a series of webinar trainings that covered solar PV permitting and inspection best practices. And West Palm Beach, Florida established a streamlined “walk-through” permitting process. Now, contractors can receive a permit in as little as 15 minutes if all the required forms are correctly filled out, whereas in the past the process could have taken up to a week. This is one action that helped West Palm Beach move from Bronze to Gold designation.
Meanwhile, SolSmart also has advisors that are competitively awarded through an application process that involves communities and/or a regional organization. Several local governments have achieved designation with the help of temporary SolSmart advisors who work on-site to provide technical assistance. One example of an organization that hosted a SolSmart advisor was the Chicago-area Metropolitan Mayors Caucus (MMC). This advisor went on to work with 15 area communities to promote a regional approach to standardizing solar processes such as permitting and zoning. Transparent and uniform processes in multiple local jurisdictions make it easier for a solar installer to conduct business across borders.
About the author: Nick Kasza is a Senior Associate with the Sustainable Cities Institute at the National League of Cities. He is part of a team that manages the SolSmart program and helps deliver technical assistance to cities pursuing SolSmart designation.