SolSmart is a national program funded by the U.S. Department of Energy SunShot Initiative. which aims to make solar energy as competitive in cost as other forms of energy by 2020. It strives to cut red tape, drive greater solar deployment, and make it possible for more American homes and businesses to access solar energy to meet their electricity needs. It also recognizes leading solar communities that are leading the way toward a solar future.
To qualify for an award, cities and counties must take steps to reduce solar “soft costs,” which are non-hardware costs that can increase the time and money it takes to install a solar energy system. Examples of soft costs include planning and zoning, permitting, financing, customer acquisition, and the cost of labor to install a solar system. Such soft costs are typically about two thirds of the total price of an installed residential system. Communities that take sufficient action are designed either gold, silver or bronze.
The cities of Austin, Texas and Boulder, Colorado have been awarded gold status by SolSmart for their commitment to solar energy. Austin has streamlined the application and permitting process for rooftop solar energy systems. It has pioneered a new online application process that is easy for consumers to navigate and shortens the time it take to complete the process.
The award recognizes the collaboration between Austin Energy, the Austin City Council, and other city of Austin departments. Together they have created plans and programs that make solar energy more attainable. Austin is in the only city in Texas to receive the award. Danielle Murray, a manager at Austin Energy, is part of the team that applied for the award. She says, “We’re happy to represent Texas and I think lay the path for other municipalities that might follow in our footsteps.”
Solar is becoming big business in Texas. The state’s solar capacity is already in the top 10 in the nation and is expected to double this year. If so, that will make Texas fastest-growing utility-scale solar market in the U.S. As of the end of 2015, Austin Energy has provided more than $50 million in rebates to 4,500 homes in the Austin area since the program began in 2004. Last year, it issued $6.7 million in residential rebates.
Boulder, Colorado has also earned gold status because of its support for solar, including tax rebates for solar installations and grants for solar panels that are installed on buildings occupied by non-profit organizations and at affordable housing sites. Additionally, Boulder’s rooftop solar tool helps community members with understandings the potential benefits of solar power as well as estimating system costs and payback time.
Yael Gichon, the city’s energy sustainability coordinator, says, “The City of Boulder is committed to the expansion of solar energy development in our community. We are pleased to receive the highest level designation that SolSmart offers in recognition of the work on solar development Boulder has already done and will continue to do in the future.”
Boulder and Austin illustrate what effective local programs can do to boost the amount of solar power installed. Their example should encourage other communities to get involved and compete for a SolSmart gold, silver, or bronze designation of their own. In 2016, 14 American cities were awarded gold status by SolSmart.