Through a combination of federal, state, and local initiatives, coupled with an expanding solar sector, including both solar installation as well as solar financing options, the United States has been experiencing continuous growth in its adoption of solar as a viable and economically feasible energy source. The nation had a cumulative total of some 20,500 MW of solar electric capacity installed at the end of 2014, enough to power about 4 million average US homes with solar, and while this is only a small segment of the estimated 123 million households in the country, it’s more than triple the capacity of just a few short years ago.
A recent report on the state of solar in America’s cities, from the Environment America Research & Policy Center, sheds some light on how and where solar is shining in the US. The latest edition of Shining Cities: Harnessing the Benefits of Solar Energy in America, released on March 26th of this year, is full of great solar talking points, including a listing of the top solar cities in the US by overall solar capacity, as well as on a per capita basis (watts installed per person), and makes the case for further adoption of solar for a number of reasons, as well as laying out some key suggestions for local, state, and federal agencies to help speed the expansion of solar.
According to Shining Cities, the following 20 US cities account for 6.5% of all solar PV capacity in the country (using figures that include the combined rooftop and utility-scale solar installation capacity inside the city limits), using just 0.1% of the land area in the US. At the top of the list are a few of ‘the usual suspects,’ with Los Angeles leading (170 MW installed), followed by San Diego (149 MW), and Phoenix (115 MW). The next city, Indianapolis, is a bit of a surprise, as it doesn’t seem like it would be a hotspot for solar, but Indy had 107 MW of installed solar capacity at the end of 2014, which earned it the number four spot on the list.
The report also quantifies the top solar cities in relation to the number of residents, by calculating the number of watts of solar PV capacity per capita, and while a number of these cities are kind of obvious contenders for being “Solar Stars” (defined as having 50 W or more of installed solar PV per resident), a few not-so-obvious cities made the list as well. The number one US city in installed solar PV per capita at the close of 2014 was Honolulu (276 W/DC per person), but the number 2 city on the list was Indianapolis (again), with 127 W, which is a great example of solar energy being viable in regions not generally known for their clear skies and abundant sunshine. After Indianapolis comes two other cities well-suited to solar, San Jose and San Diego, both with 110 W/DC per person, but the number five spot was secured by Wilmington, Delaware, which only had 7 MW/DC total installed solar capacity (ranking it down at 28th in overall capacity), but which equals out to 101 W/DC per resident.
The report also named the leading cities in each US region, with Denver leading the Mountain region (58 MW/DC total solar capacity), Honolulu leading the Pacific region, Indianapolis leading the North Central region, New Orleans leading the South Central region (36 MW/DC), Wilmington leading the South Atlantic region, and Newark, New Jersey, leading the New England and Mid-Atlantic regions (22 MW/DC).
According to Environment America, more cities can start to reap the rewards of clean energy through a combination of local and state solar policies and by “taking actions that will encourage innovation and investment in the solar industry.” The organization suggests that the following are a few of “the most effective drivers of solar energy development”:
- Reduce soft costs of solar through streamlining the solar permitting process
- Removing local barriers to solar energy adoption by encouraging more local solar lending, providing “predictable tax incentives” for more affordable solar installations, and adopting “solar-friendly permitting policies and building codes”
- Expanding access to solar through the implementation of bulk purchase programs (“Solarize” programs) and the development of more community and shared solar programs
- Partnering with municipal utilities to set renewable energy goals, and to offer financial incentives for soalr projects
For more insights into the state of solar in US cities, including lessons learned by leading cities and the benefits of solar to both residents and city governments, the full report is available as a free download (PDF).