Alaska tends to conjure images of snowy mountaintops and bears; solar installations, not so much. But in October 2019, the city of Anchorage became the 300th community in the United States to receive a SolSmart designation, meaning Anchorage is open for solar business. Joining hundreds of communities across the country, Anchorage has taken significant steps to make it easier for a solar marketplace to thrive.
The national SolSmart program launched in April 2016 with $13 million in funding from the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy’s Solar Energy Technologies Office. Led by the International City/County Management Association and The Solar Foundation, SolSmart aims to reduce the red tape and soft costs of installing solar. Soft costs are non-hardware costs, such as those associated with permitting and inspection, and they represent about 74% of the cost of a solar energy system. The program also streamlines processes for solar companies to make it easier for them to enter the market.
Now there are SolSmart designees in 40 states and the District of Columbia. Designees are cities, counties, and regional organizations that first have to show how they would improve the solar permit process and regulations for planning, zoning, and development. After that, they can earn points toward a bronze, silver, or gold designation by making progress across six categories: inspection, construction codes, solar rights, utility engagement, community engagement, and market development and finance.
One requirement for gold designees, for example, is that they shrink the turnaround time for solar project permits to three days or less. When the city of West Palm Beach, Florida, set up a one-day permitting process for solar systems of 10 kilowatts (kW) or less, it added 665 kW of solar energy—a 50% increase in one year.
Setting SolSmart goals may be unfamiliar territory, but communities don’t have to go it alone: The program offers free, hands-on technical assistance from advisers who travel to train communities in best practices for obtaining permits, reviewing planning and zoning guidelines, facilitating group purchase campaigns, improving solar financing options, and more. For transparency, communities must demonstrate their efforts: They post checklists for their permitting process online and review zoning requirements and restrictions that could prevent solar project development.
Ultimately, these steps reduce the time and cost it takes to install solar energy systems, helping the industry expand faster, boosting local economies, and creating jobs. The U.S. has more than 242,000 U.S. solar workers as of 2018, and since 2010, the solar workforce has increased by 168%, according to The Solar Foundation’s National Solar Jobs Census. Take Orlando, Florida, where the number of solar contractors has doubled to 51 since the city achieved SolSmart gold status in 2017.
But solar isn’t limited to the Sunshine State. When Boise, Idaho, received its SolSmart designation, the city saw a 47% increase in residential solar permits issued in fiscal year 2018. And Schaumburg, Illinois, went from having three solar projects before obtaining its silver designation in 2018 to adding permits for five commercial solar projects and 98 residential ones.
Now Anchorage is home to Alaska’s largest rooftop solar array on a convention center—77 kW—which is expected to save over $20,000 in electricity bills and pay for itself in under eight years, and 150 homeowners got solar in 2019.
Bringing local governments and industry together, SolSmart fosters partnerships that are good for business while expanding access to affordable solar energy to more Americans.