How Solar Energy Can Help Cities Meet Climate Goals and Boost Economic Development

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NLC’s Sustainable Cities Institute has partnered with The Solar Foundation to provide national recognition and no-cost technical support for local governments to promote solar energy.

Workers install solar panels at the new Solarpark Eggersdorf in Muencheberg, Germany. Germany is investing heavily in renewable energy projects, especially solar, wind and biogas ventures, as the country is in the ongoing process of closing down its nuclear energy plants. (Photo: Sean Gallup/Getty Images)
Workers install solar panels at the new Solarpark Eggersdorf in Muencheberg, Germany. Germany is investing heavily in renewable energy projects, and American cities can address their climate goals in a cost-effective manner by making similar investments. (Photo: Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

This is a guest post by Phillip Haddix.

The Compact of Mayors, COP 21, and the Clean Power Plan underscore the importance of renewable energy adoption at the local level. By establishing benchmarks and goals, these initiatives have taken the first step toward addressing climate change.

Now comes the hard part – taking action. In the coming years, cities must implement policies and programs that work to satisfy their climate commitments. The adoption and promotion of solar energy represent increasingly viable and cost-effective means for helping cities nationwide to address their climate goals, while simultaneously stimulating local economic development.

In 2015, the solar industry installed 7.3 GW of solar photovoltaics (PV) – enough to power almost 1.3 million homes – and provided employment opportunities for nearly 209,000 workers. This consistent year-over-year growth demonstrates the solar industry’s continued role as an economic driver. Record installations are expected to continue in coming years due to the requirements of the Clean Power Plan, coupled with the extension of the solar Investment Tax Credit (ITC) at the end of last year. This trend will cause further solar job and industry growth, and solar-friendly cities can reap these economic benefits.

Opportunities for governments to increase the adoption and affordability of solar are not limited to the federal level. In fact, local governments can play a key role in reducing the non-hardware “soft costs” of solar and do their part to foster the development of a mature local solar market.

Soft costs incurred during the customer acquisition, permitting, and financing processes make going solar less affordable. Additionally, the overly complex or time-consuming local government processes that give rise to some of these costs also represent a drain on municipal or county staff and budgetary resources. Currently, almost 18,000 jurisdictions and 3,000 utilities throughout 50 states have different rules and regulations for solar energy. This exacerbates the soft cost dilemma, but also presents an opportunity. By reducing soft costs, local governments can operate more efficiently, stretch taxpayer dollars further, attract new solar jobs and companies, and make solar more affordable while also differentiating their solar-friendly community from their peers.

The Solar Powering America by Recognizing Communities (SPARC) program, funded through the U.S. Department of Energy’s SunShot initiative, aims to drive greater solar deployment and make it possible for more American homes and business to access affordable and renewable solar energy to meet their electricity needs. SPARC will soon release a new designation program focused on providing communities with national recognition for their efforts to reduce soft costs and promote solar market maturity. By achieving designation, municipal governments signal to the solar industry that they are open for solar business. The program offers no-cost technical assistance from a team of experienced national solar experts to help cities and counties nationwide qualify for designation.

Local governments have the ability to take meaningful action that directly affects the quality of life for their residents. It’s time for your community to take action and harness solar power as an effective tool to meet climate goals and spur economic development. To join SPARC or learn more about the program, please sign up for updates or visit gosparc.org.

About the Author: Philip Haddix is a Program Director at The Solar Foundation and the Principal Investigator for the SPARC Technical Assistance Provider program.