SolSmart is a national recognition and technical assistance program for local governments. Its mission is to expand solar deployment and make it possible for more American homes and businesses to access affordable and renewable solar energy for their electricity needs. The program also provides technical assistance and shares best practices with communities seeking national recognition for cutting red tape and improving local solar market conditions.
SolSmart was created in 2016 through the DOE Solar Powering America by Recognizing Communities funding program. On May 23, 2022, DOE announced the expansion of SolSmart to add new areas of focus around solar + storage, low and moderate income solar financing, and other strategies to accelerate deployment.
Then on March 24 of this year, DOE announced a further expansion of the SolSmart program, which includes a Platinum designation for the most forward-looking communities and new priorities to support disadvantaged communities. So far, the SolSmart program has helped nearly 500 communities across the US streamline permitting, overhaul zoning, train workers, and engage residents in solar programs. The expansion seeks to add another 500 communities to the program. It also is designed to widen the scope of the program to include other Biden administration priorities, including supporting community solar development and improving equitable access to solar energy.
Edith Makra is one of two people running the Metropolitan Mayors Caucus in Illinois. To date, it has helped more than 50 Chicago area communities that want to expand access to local solar power by participating in the SolSmart program. “The magic for the communities [is] that it allowed them to do what they have to do — regulate development, engage with communities and ensure public safety — more effectively and with great results,” she told Canary Media recently. Of the more than 50 local Illinois governments participating, many have reduced solar permitting turnaround times to just three days. A few have also seen requests for solar installations grow more than a hundredfold since they began working with Makra’s organization.
SolSmart & Solar Soft Costs
When it comes to building solar infrastructure, there are hard costs and soft costs. Hard costs include purchasing solar panels, racking systems, and inverters. Paying people to install all the hardware also falls in the category of hard costs. Then there are soft costs. They typically include preparing applications to permitting authorities, navigating public hearings, and doing things like surveying the land where solar systems and their supporting technologies, community outreach programs, and financing. “Soft costs” is such an innocuous sounding phrase, but in some cases those soft costs can account for two-thirds of the total cost of a solar installation.
Cutting soft costs isn’t just an important way to lower the all-in cost of expanding solar. It’s also vital to making solar accessible to communities that have lacked the money and know-how to obtain it. “There are a lot of best practices out there,” said Michele Boyd, a program manager at DOE’s Solar Energy Technologies Office. “How do we get them to communities that want to increase their solar market?”
Edith Makra’s group collected data on their permitting costs and time frames, which provided insights into how to create a new standard template for solar permitting. One thing solar developers and installers want more than anything else is predictable rules and regulations from town to town, just as automakers want standard rules and regulations so they don’t have to build 50 different models to meet varying rules in all 50 states. Zoning ordinances can also add costs to the process of installing more solar systems. SolSmart provides a standard process for communities to identify and remove some of those barriers.
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Putting Grants To Work
Communities participating in the SolSmart program have found different ways to leverage their grant funding. Some have trained permitting and inspection staff on the latest tools, including DOE’s SolarApp permitting platform or virtual home inspections, both of which can dramatically cut solar inspection times and costs. Cuyahoga County in Ohio and Michigan City, Indiana, have teamed up with solar cooperatives to pool neighborhood buying power for rooftop solar. Others have formed local solar workforce development programs.
“Many communities say that SolSmart served as a launchpad to broader clean energy activities,” said Theresa Perry, program director at the Interstate Renewable Energy Council, one of the two nonprofit organizations that manage the SolSmart program. She said that five rural communities in Puerto Rico are working on a resiliency plan, something that grew out of their participation in the SolSmart program. Or they may be working on supporting EVs throughout the community, as Illinois’ Metropolitan Mayors Caucus has done with the recent launch of an EV readiness program for its municipal members.
The SolSmart program supports the Biden administration’s Justice40 Initiative which pledges to direct 40% of federal climate related funds to historically disadvantaged communities. In addition, it is supporting community efforts to expand solar for multifamily housing, low income resident participation in community solar, and building pathways for local minority and women owned businesses to install solar.
“It’s up to the communities to determine that pathway. We don’t tell them what to do, but when they decide what they want to do, we help them do it,” said Michele Boyd, a program manager at DOE’s Solar Energy Technologies Office.
Neal Denton, a sustainability officer for Santa Fe, New Mexico, noted that his city has cut rooftop solar permitting fees to $40 and put permitting checklists online to “make the process easier for people.” Santa Fe is also developing ways to help residents work with banks and credit unions to obtain low interest loans for solar installations, which “is a significant barrier for some people.”
Alon Abramson, director of residential programs at the Philadelphia Energy Authority, said there is another dimension to the be considered. Some residents aren’t able to install solar even if financing is lined up because their homes require underlying repairs that must be addressed by funding home retrofits that precede solar installations.
That’s all part of the broader DOE goal of building a more solar friendly environment that reduces soft costs for local governments as well as residents and developers, said Scott Annis, a senior program manager at the International City/County Management Association, one of two nonprofits chosen by DOE to manage SolSmart. “We understand they are quite busy and often under-resourced. We can go in and help them implement these best practices. If you can do that, you can save your staff time, which is a cost saving measure as well.”
SolSmart is an attempt by the federal government to expand solar power opportunities by reducing the friction in the system that makes solar more expensive and excludes some Americans from the advantages of having access to zero emissions electricity. Price stability is one of those advantages. Electricity rates can spike sharply at times, such as happened in Texas in 2021 when unusually cold weather caused widespread outages. Solar power relies on power purchase agreements that often guarantee stable energy prices for 20 years or more.
Finding ways to reduce the friction in the system benefits everyone, especially those who need access to clean renewable energy the most.