The top ten cities for solar power in the US are as follows, according to a report entitled Shining Cities from The Frontier Group and the Environment America Research & Policy Center.

  1. Los Angeles 170 MW
  2. San Diego 149 MW
  3. Phoenix 115 MW
  4. Indianapolis 107 MW
  5. San Jose 105 MW
  6. Honolulu 96 MW
  7. San Antonio 88 MW
  8. Denver 58 MW
  9. New York 41 MW
  10. New Orleans 36 MW

Most of those are places we think of as being especially sunny places, but two cities — Indianapolis and New York — run counter to traditional wisdom. Why is that?

According to the report’s authors, “Research shows that solar energy policies – far more than the availability of sunshine – dictate which states have successful solar industries and which ones do not.”

The Indianapolis Experience

Indianapolis Power & Light (IP&L) initiated solar friendly policies way back in 2010 by offering a feed in tariff to customers with solar power systems. That program paid higher than market rates for excess solar powered fed back into the grid.

Indianapolis’s sterling performance is both an illustrative and cautionary tale.

In 2010, Indianapolis Power and Light took the first step toward diversifying its generation, which largely consisted of coal-fired plants, by offering a voluntary feed-in tariff. This paid solar power producers fixed, above-market rates for solar power generated.

Twelve MW of solar farms and three utility-scale PV installations came on line in 2013. A year later another large installation with 76,000 solar panels at the Indianapolis Airport came on line. By the end of 2014 the city had 107 MW of installed capacity.

But IP&L discontinued the feed-in tariff in March of 2013 and its rebate program for small home installations expired at the end of 2014. A bill introduced in the state legislature in February 2105 aims to cut the amount of money solar generators get for putting electricity onto the gird and would allow utilities to charge a user fee to homes and businesses with solar panels.

“Ending the policies that have created a solar boom in the city and failing to promote small-scale solar projects would reverse years of progress,” the Shining Cities report concludes.

The New York City Model

New York is not a place we usually think of as a particularly sunny city. It has a high percentage of renters and not a lot of open land for utility scale solar installations. But after SuperStorm Sandy knocked out electric power to many city residents for a week or more, interest in solar energy and a more durable, resilient grid skyrocketed.

Currently, the State of New York is promoting its NY-Sun Initiative, which aims to double the amount of customer roof-top solar annually.  According to Governor Cuomo, ” NY-Sun provides innovative solutions, creates a more resilient and flexible power grid, lowers the State’s carbon footprint, and promotes a cleaner and healthier environment for all New Yorkers.”

Consolidated Edison (ConEd), the local utility company, is offering rebates to customers who install solar energy storage systems and the city has launched a climate change adaption plan that includes “Solar Empowerment Zones,” areas in the city where solar could deliver the most benefit.

According to The Denver Post, America’s top 50 cities represent only 0.001% of the available land area but account for 6.5% of all solar generated electricity in the nation with 1,300 megawatts installed as of the end of 2014. That’s enough to power 250,000 million homes.

The political policies our cities put in place will determine whether or not solar and other renewable energy sources become more abundant or languish behind the pace of adoption in other countries.