Survey Results Shed Light on Solar Energy Challenges, Opportunities

In the fall of 2011, ICMA conducted a solar survey of local governments. This survey, which was sent to 10,423 city-type local governments with populations over 2,500 and all counties, aimed to gather information on what local governments are doing related to the adoption of solar energy, particularly solar photovoltaic (PV). The survey had a response rate of 24.1% (2,507 local governments), and the data provide an overview of the solar landscape as it pertains to local governments across the country – the challenges they are facing, the solar initiatives underway, and areas where local governments can still take steps to help facilitate the increased adoption of solar PV in their communities.

Nearly a third of local governments report facing challenges to solar energy development, and of those, nearly two thirds (64.0%) cite the high cost of solar as a challenge to solar energy development. The next most frequently reported challenges are aesthetic impact concerns (28.7%), lack of interest in or awareness about solar energy development (27.1%), and lack of enabling legislation to incentivize solar installations (26.5%).

Despite these challenges, nearly half of local governments responding to the survey (47.6%) report having installed a solar system on local-government-owned facility or land (84.8% of these systems are solar PV, and 24.5% are solar water heating). For these systems, 60.8% of local governments report owning them outright, while 33.3% report buying the power, and 11.4% say they lease the roof space or land on which the system is located. Close to one-third (30.6%) of local governments report that they have installed one or more solar PV demonstration projects, intended as a public showcase and educational opportunity, with the most common location for demonstration projects being on government facilities (70.8%).

Local governments are also addressing solar through planning. Zoning ordinances were the most commonly reported to address solar (43.1%), followed by comprehensive plans (34.8%), and green building codes (27.6%). Over half (54%) of local governments responding to the question also say that they have discussed solar energy in the visioning process.

When it comes to financing incentives for solar, 17.2% of local governments report that financial incentives for installing solar PV are available either through the local government or the municipal utility. Of these, the most common are rebates, which 60.7% of those offering incentives report offering for residential installations and 63.4% report offering for commercial installations, followed by direct loans/low-interest loans (23.0% and 20.8% for residential and commercial respectively). Local governments offering direct incentives for solar PV installations are most likely to fund them through either state and federal grants or a publicly-owned utility budget (25.7% for both).

Permitting saw lower levels of local governments offering incentives. Only 12.9% of local governments report offering mechanism for expediting permitting, such as expedited review for standard installations, expedited review for qualified contractors, or expedited review for customers willing to pay an extra fee) for solar PV installations.

As the survey data shows, there are many areas where local governments can make changes to help facilitate the adoption of solar energy technologies on the local level. Some of these are relatively easy changes. For example, fewer than a third of local governments (29.1%) make information about permitting processes and associated fees for solar PV installations available online and only 20.5% report that information about the local utility’s interconnection process for PV online. And some are more challenging, like creating expedited permitting processes, updating zoning codes, and finding financing incentives that help address the high costs of solar.

Geography

Response rates were highest from local governments in the West (Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming) at 32.6%. The next highest response rate for was North-Central (Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota, and Wisconsin) at 25.9%. The lowest response rate was from the Northeast (Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maine, New Jersey, New Hampshire, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Vermont) at 18.2%. The response rate for the South (Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and West Virginia) was 22.4%.

Form of Government

The highest response rates came from jurisdictions with council-manager (30.7%) and council-administrator (28.6%) forms of government, followed by jurisdictions with Representative town meetings (23.4%). Response rates were above 20% for all forms of government except town meeting (17.7%) and county commission (17.3%).

The ICMA Solar Survey of Local Governments summary is available at in the Knowledge Network.

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