The US coal industry just can’t win for losing. Industry analysts agree that President* Trump was blowing smoke when he promised to bring back coal jobs, and meanwhile the US solar energy industry has continued to benefit from sustainable power programs launched under President Obama. The latest in a long string of examples is the SolSmart project funded by the US Department of Energy. SolSmart enlists local governments to help accelerate the renewable energy transition, and it already has 158 recruits on its way to a goal of 300.
SolSmart & Solar Energy
That insight predates the Trump administration, and local action is all the more important now that Trump’s coal-friendly “energy dominance” strategy has pushed an aggressive national climate change response aside, in favor of policies ramping up fossil fuel development.
SolSmart launched under the Obama administration in April 2016 as a project of The Solar Foundation funded by the Department of Energy. The aim is to “cut red tape, drive greater solar deployment, and make it possible for even more American homes and businesses to access solar energy to meet their electricity needs.”
That red tape can be costly. SolSmart estimates that “inefficient” local permitting processes typically add $2,500 to the cost of a residential rooftop solar installation.
SolSmart is structured as a recognition and mentoring program that can help grow local jobs directly in the solar industry, while also enabling local communities to promote their green brand:
SolSmart recognizes cities, counties, and small towns for making it faster, easier, and more affordable to go solar. Our national team of experts provides no-cost technical assistance to help local governments become “open for solar businesses.” In recognition of their achievements, our communities receive designations of SolSmart Gold, Silver, and Bronze.
More Solar For Anytown, USA: #ThanksTrump!
Interestingly, the program got off to a slow start under the Obama Administration. Only 36 enlistees joined in the first 12 months, from April 2016 to April 2017.
In contrast, things really took off for SolSmart during Trump’s first year in office. Last May SolSmart announced another 22 recruits and the program added 100 more by the end of 2017, for a total of 158.
Aside from the US Department of Energy and the Solar Foundation, SolSmart partners with mainstream local planning and management organizations including the International City/County Management Association, the National Association of Counties, and the National League of Cities among others.
Our friends over at Midwest Energy News have a good rundown on the largest single SolSmart partner, a collaborative effort through the Metropolitan Mayors Caucus in the Chicago, Illinois area. The group includes about 12 municipalities distributed across four counties.
The collaboration is a good test case for the effectiveness of SolSmart, because the participating municipalities came to the program with a relatively low level of solar installation.
One sign of potential progress is illustrated by the village of Hawthorn Woods, which seems tailor made for residential rooftop solar — except that it has only six installations under its belt.
Last fall SolSmart helped Hawthorn Woods strike out in a new direction with the passage of a new local code that eases the way for rooftop solar. The village has also established a flat rate for permits, a new web page that helps guide homeowners through the rooftop permitting process, and a goal of 10 days (or as little as three days) for permit turnaround.
The Solar Foundation only has a three-year contract to run SolSmart and the goal is to sign up 300 local governments by October 2018. If you want your community to ramp up its solar energy profile, get them to apply now (it’s free!) before the Trump administration wishes SolSmart into a cornfield.
So, What About All Those Coal Jobs?
None of this is good news for coal, and the Chicago area collaboration is especially interesting considering that Illinois is one of the leading coal-producing states in the US.
Illinois made the top five coal producers list in 2016, and those five states accounted for about 70% of US coal production overall. Though far behind the #1 state of Wyoming, Illinois came in at #4, right between the Appalachian coal states of Pennsylvania and Kentucky.
The state’s coal industry is facing tough times as coal power plants continue to fall like dominoes. Some of those closures have taken place in Illinois. In 2016 Dynergy announced plans to shut down more than 2,200 megawatts in coal power capacity. The company has been fighting to keep its remaining coal fleet in Illinois viable, but the economics are working against it.
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Image: via US Department of Energy.