New report shines a light on innovative American cities advancing clean energy policies

More than 57 million people live in our country's 100 largest cities--1 in 6 Americans, in fact. The metropolitan areas that cities anchor are places with high electric demand.

That's why innovative urban solar policies that promote the clean power of the sun can be key to lowering electric costs, increasing grid reliability and resilience, mitigating climate change, creating good-paying local jobs, and helping all of us breathe cleaner air, according to a new report by Environment America. Titled Shining Cities: Harnessing the Benefits of Solar Energy in America, the report explores how leading cities have been promoting the installation of solar power. Importantly, it offers policy recommendations that cities can use to spur solar growth and offer benefits to urban dwellers across the country.

These days, the main drivers of solar growth often include federal and state policies and incentives--and, of course, solar's own plummeting costs. But city policies can be especially important, because they often address those "last-mile" barriers that stand in the way of solar's advance. To help speed deployment of solar in urban areas, the report recommends:

  • Local government programs that support collective purchasing and offer PACE financing: Cities like Chicago, Illinois, Fort Collins, Colorado, and Kansas City, Missouri have made solar more accessible to residents and businesses with programs that make solar easier to afford. City collective solar purchasing programs pool the purchasing power of residents, businesses and municipalities interested in solar--otherwise known as buying solar in bulk--thereby cutting solar's already dropping costs by an additional 10-20 percent. Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) programs offer a way to finance solar and energy efficiency measures by allowing commercial and residential property owners to pay back clean energy project scoping, equipment and installation costs through their property taxes. It is a financing tool that is "new" to clean energy, but is in fact based on a century-old public finance model employed by numerous American cities and towns who have used it to finance a wide range of public infrastructure improvement projects like street paving, parks, and water and sewer systems. (On a personal note I am proud to say that as of this March I am among the first homeowners in my town of Pleasant Hill, California to complete a major energy efficiency transaction using a PACE-based financing program to upgrade my condo's decades-old heating and cooling system to a high efficiency, smart-thermostat controlled system.) Check out this page to see if PACE is available in your town or city.
  • Streamlining permitting processes: Making permitting rules clean and simple, speeding the permitting process itself, and making inspections convenient for both property owners and solar businesses who can bring solar systems online more quickly. That, in turn, can help solar businesses run more efficiently, bring down costs and help create new jobs.
  • Installing solar on public buildings: Putting solar on schools, water treatment centers, parking lots, and other large public buildings can cut air pollution from power plants, save local governments money on energy, and build the local solar economy.

There's so much cities can do to promote the growth of solar in their communities. Shining Cities does the nation's municipalities a service by showing them how.