New Community Solar Program Aims To “SPARC” 100% Renewables

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The city of Burlington, Vermont, made waves last year when it achieved 100% renewable energy with the help of a hydropower purchase, and now the US Energy Department wants to help others do the same thing using solar. Last week the agency launched a new program that will deploy a national team of experts to identify best practices and help communities apply them to local solar markets, so neighborhoods, towns, and cities won’t have to re-invent the wheel with each new project.

As for Burlington’s renewable energy dive, this city of 42,000 (the largest city in Vermont) is a tourist destination in a state not exactly known for its mild climate, which makes the shift from fossil power plants to renewables all the more remarkable.

SPARC Community Solar Ready

Is Your Community Solar Ready?

The basic goal of the new initiative is to help communities ready themselves for solar development, by identifying and alleviating barriers related to the “soft costs” of a fully installed solar system.

Soft costs are practically anything other than the solar panels themselves. That includes financing, administration, and labor, for example. When you factor in all of the soft costs, you’re talking about roughly half the cost of a solar system. Trimming those down can have a huge impact on the ability of a community to go solar.

The Energy Department has been working with solar industry stakeholders to reduce soft costs as part of the SunShot initiative, with the goal of making solar cost-competitive with fossil fuels sooner rather than later, and the new program falls under that umbrella.

Called SPARC for Solar Powering America by Recognizing Communities, the program will establish a platform for identifying successful community solar systems nationally, and providing other communities with technical assistance to replicate those systems locally.

Faster, Better, Cheaper Community Solar

Specifically, SPARC targets areas that delay the process on a local level, including permitting, inspection, and interconnection. In addition to layering unnecessary costs onto a project, delays can be lethal.

There’s a competitive aspect to SPARC, too. Communities that are identified as solar-ready, best-practices models will earn national recognition, which is a nice perk for communities looking to burnish their green brand.

Here’s the rundown as described by the Energy Department:

The SPARC designation… will spur communities across the country to earn recognition for achievements that distinguish them from their peers as they become more solar-friendly, and in doing so, ignite local solar markets while establishing consistency in solar practices across the country. SPARC supports the goals of the SunShot Initiative to make it faster, cheaper, and easier to go solar.

To set up the project, the Energy Department is allocating $13 million to establish a body of experts to identify and select solar-ready communities, and to provide “robust and agile” technical assistance to other community solar development projects.

The deadline for concept papers is March 5, so if you want to get in on the action, check out the community solar funding opportunity.

Check out lots more news on community solar projects in the US on sister site Planetsave.

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Image Credit (screenshot): Courtesy of US Department of Energy.

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Tina Casey

Tina specializes in advanced energy technology, military sustainability, emerging materials, biofuels, ESG and related policy and political matters. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on LinkedIn, Threads, or Bluesky.

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