The DOE doubles its SolSmart program, with an aim to boost local solar

Here’s how hundreds of communities across the U.S. are tapping SolSmart to help streamline permitting and zoning and expand access to solar power.
By Jeff St. John

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A group of people in business casual clothes posing in front of a conference center with signs that say "SolSmart"
Representatives of the more than 50 local governments in Illinois that have implemented the DOE-funded SolSmart program to streamline and support solar investments in their communities (SolSmart)

Edith Makra and team have been hard at work putting a new solar-power-focused spin on the old think global, act local” maxim.

Since 2017, her two-person office at the Illinois-based Metropolitan Mayors Caucus has been helping more than 50 Chicago-area cities, towns and villages that want to expand access to local solar power via SolSmart, a Department of Energy–funded program.

Plenty of communities in Illinois wanted to participate, Makra said. In 2018, more than 100 members of the caucus had signed on to a broad sustainability pledge and were looking for opportunities to do something” to boost solar adoption without making major capital investments or taxing already busy staff, she said. SolSmart’s eligibility criteria for potential partners met those requirements.

SolSmart provides free technical assistance to cities, counties and other local government organizations that want to support and expand the growth of solar. So far, the SolSmart program has helped nearly 500 communities across the U.S. streamline permitting, overhaul zoning, train workers and engage residents in solar programs — and now it’s doubling in size.

Earlier this month, SolSmart announced plans to expand to 500 more local governments and regional organizations through 2027, backed by $10 million in funding. Along with this new scale, SolSmart is widening its scope beyond rooftop solar to include other Biden administration priorities, including supporting community-solar development and improving equitable access to solar energy.

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,” Makra said. 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, she said.

The DOE’s broader goal with the program is to reduce solar soft costs,” which include everything that isn’t the cost of the solar panels, inverters and other hardware involved. Those include the costs of acquiring customers and permitting, installing and financing solar projects, and can account for two-thirds of the total cost of typical solar installations.

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?” 

Diverse community needs, shared templates 

Communities partnering with SolSmart have taken a number of different paths to leverage their grant funding.

Some have trained permitting and inspection staff on the latest tools, such as DOE’s SolarApp permitting platform or virtual home inspections, which can dramatically cut solar inspection time and cost. Many of them, such as Ohio’s Cuyahoga County and Michigan City, Indiana, have teamed up with solar cooperatives such as Solar United Neighbors to pool neighborhood buying power for rooftop solar. Others have formed local solar-workforce development programs, like northwest Indiana’s Soul Power Project, or they’ve focused on bringing solar to rural areas, as Pennsylvania’s Centre Region Council of Governments is pursuing.

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.

They may be working on a resilience plan, which is not part of the SolSmart program, but grows from that,” Perry said, as with the microgrid projects being pursued by five rural municipalities in Puerto Rico, the territory’s first SolSmart participants. 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.

Fundamental improvements in solar permitting and inspection are an important foundation for this kind of work. In Illinois, communities participating in SolSmart collected data on their permitting costs and timeframes, Makra said. That data provided baselines for improving those processes, including creating a new standard template for solar permitting — a big bonus for solar developers and installers eager for predictable rules and regulations from town to town, Makra noted.

SolSmart guidance also helped participating municipalities review their zoning ordinances, which can sometimes present unexpected barriers to residents who want rooftop solar.

A lot of communities are not aware of the barriers to solar they’ve put into their zoning ordinances,” such as rules requiring special exemptions to install solar, Perry said. SolSmart provides a standard process for communities to identify and remove some of those barriers.

Putting up a web page with all the information that customers and solar installers might need is another simple step that can significantly boost adoption, said Scott Annis, a senior program manager at the International City/​County Management Association, the other of the two nonprofits chosen by DOE to manage SolSmart.

You should be easily able to find on one government website everything you want to know about solar,” he said, offering examples from SolSmart communities from Olympia, Washington to Pulaski County, Virginia. Consumer protection, resources on solar financing options and summaries of state policies for solar access — have as many resources as you can.”

Making solar accessible for all 

SolSmart also announced it will adhere to the Biden administration’s Justice40 Initiative, which pledges to direct 40 percent of federal climate-related funds to historically disadvantaged communities, DOE’s Boyd said. 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,” she said.

It’s up to the communities to determine that pathway,” Boyd said. We don’t tell them what to do. But when they decide what they want to do, we help them do it.”

SolSmart participants have previously laid out some of the challenges for extending solar to underserved communities in 2021 webinar.

Neal Denton, a sustainability officer for Santa Fe, New Mexico, noted that the city had cut rooftop solar permitting fees to $40 and put permitting checklists online to make the process easier for people.” But it’s still developing ways to help city 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, highlighted his group’s work on making low-cost solar leases available to city residents. But some residents aren’t able to install solar even if financing is lined up because their homes require underlying repairs, he noted — a problem that must be addressed by funding home retrofits that precede solar installations.

SolSmart has been taking steps to make its already no-cost technical assistance much more accessible to communities that have fewer resources, to make it less of an administrative task to participate,” Perry told us. If they have to write a memo, there’s a template that’s already there.”

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, Annis said. We understand they’re quite busy and often under-resourced,” he said. We can go in and help them implement these best practices. And if you can do that, you can save your staff time — this is a cost-saving measure as well.” 

Jeff St. John is director of news and special projects at Canary Media. He covers innovative grid technologies, rooftop solar and batteries, clean hydrogen, EV charging and more.