Solar energy is on the rise in the United States; in fact, in his January State of the Union address, President Obama recognized this shift, saying that, “We’re becoming a leader in solar … every four minutes, another American home or business goes solar; every panel pounded into place by a worker whose job can’t be outsourced.”
It’s true that the U.S. has made great strides in promoting and installing solar energy systems. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, more than half of all U.S. states have their own renewable energy standards, and a recent study conducted by the non-profit research and policy center Environment Ohio notes that as of April 2014, the U.S. has more than 200 times as much solar photovoltaic (PV) capacity as it did in 2002.
The Environment Ohio study found that 2013 was a historic year for solar power; the U.S. as a nation passed the 10 gigawatt mark for solar capacity, and the nation installed more solar power in 2013 than in any other year previous. More than 4.37 gigawatts of solar energy were installed last year, the study found.
Overall, the study’s results are incredibly optimistic about the future of solar power in America. “America has enough solar energy potential to power the nation several times over,” the study reads. “Every one of the 50 states has the technical potential through both utility-scale and rooftop solar energy systems — to generate more electricity than is uses in the average year.” Further, “in 19 states the technical potential for electricity generation from solar PV exceeds annual electricity consumption by a factor of 100 or more.”
The increase, the Environment Ohio study notes, is likely due partially to the increasing affordability of solar energy systems, but also to a broadening awareness of solar energy options and their benefits over non-renewable sources throughout the country.
Environment Ohio collected data on 57 different metropolitan areas throughout the nation and identified the 20 cities that make up the nation’s solar elite. These 20 cities have more solar energy capacity than anywhere else in the country, and the study observes that while they may represent just 0.1 percent of the land area of the U.S., these 20 cities account for more than 7 percent of solar PV capacity in the nation.
The 20 cities which made it into the report’s top tier had certain things in common: many of the cities on the list have city-wide policies and programs which help to encourage or promote the use of solar energy, and several of the cities have even gone so far as to establish partnerships with local utilities to further encourage those programs. Many cities on the list also belong to states which have tough renewable energy standards or state-wide policies which help to make renewable energy sources more affordable through various incentives. Overall, the study found, price played a big role in the pervasiveness of solar energy systems.
“Cities where homeowners are paid a fair price for the energy they supply to the grid, where installing solar panels is easy and hassle-free, where there are attractive options for solar financing, and where there has been a strong commitment to support solar energy development, are seeing explosive growth in solar power,” the Environment Ohio study found.
The 10 cities we’ve profiled here do include some of the usual suspects, and many of them belong to the sunniest states in the nation; California dominates the list with 6 of its major cities all in the top 20, but there are a few surprises that have made it into the top 10 as well. The Midwestern mecca, Indianapolis, for instance, might not necessarily strike you as the kind of sunny, blue-state metropolis that would boast the seventh most solar capacity in the nation.
10. Denver, Colorado
Denver, Colorado takes the 10th spot in our list of top solar cities; the city’s cumulative solar PV capacity is 25 megawatts, according to the Environment Ohio study. The study also noted that Denver is one of several cities which is encouraging the adoption of solar energy in part by equipping its own public buildings with solar PV systems. Currently Denver has installed 9.4 megawatts of solar power on city and county buildings and has partnered with Denver Public Schools to begin installing solar power systems on 28 local schools as well.
9. San Francisco, California
San Francisco, California takes ninth with a cumulative solar PV capacity of 26 megawatts. Environment Ohio notes that San Francisco, along with Portland, Oregon has taken several important steps to streamline its permitting process for solar PV systems, thereby increasing access. The city has reduced the wait times associated with the permitting process, as well as created online permitting tools which reduce the need for in-person paperwork.
8. New York City, New York
New York City has made some big moves in its efforts to solarize, and while the Big Apple still lags behind several (sunnier) California cities that were early adopters of the trend towards solar power, the state of New York has made big commitments towards becoming a leader in the field. Governor Andrew Cuomo announced in April that he would extend the NY-SUN initiative with the hopes of installing 10 times more solar power in New York State by 2023. Earlier, in January, Cuomo made a similar commitment when he announced that he would allocate $1 billion towards funding new solar energy projects.
Currently, according to the Environment Ohio study, New York City’s cumulative solar PV capacity is 33 MW, though the NY-SUN initiative notes that nearly two-thirds of New York City rooftops are compatible with currently available solar energy systems, and supporters hope to improve the number of rooftop installations in the city.
The NY-SUN initiative is largely responsible for New York City’s existing eighth place ranking on our list. Created in 2012, the initiative “provides cash incentives for residential and commercial customers looking to install solar panels,” making the systems more affordable than they otherwise might be.
New York is one of a number of states which have created programs (like NY-SUN) which provide incentives for homeowners who wish to install solar PV systems; many other states have other, similar creative financing options with the goal of providing renewable energy installations to more homeowners. “New York City,” the study says, “offers a property tax credit for homeowners who install solar panels and exempts residential solar panels from sales tax.”
New York City is also one a few cities on our list which has effectively partnered with a utility company to make the installation of solar energy systems easier and more affordable. The city’s collaboration with investor-owned utility Con Edison has already proved successful. Con Edison introduced a net metering policy in 2009 that “allowed more solar installations to connect to the grid and receive credit for the excess energy they fed back into it.”
Con Edison has also developed “solar empowerment zones … through its partnership with the city and other stakeholders; the solar empowerment zones are geographic regions of the city which have been identified as ideal for solar power production, in which solar projects are eligible for additional solar incentives,” Environment Ohio notes.
7. Indianapolis, Indiana
Indianapolis, Indiana is the sole Midwestern city to make it into our top ten. According to Environment Ohio, Indianapolis ranks seventh with a cumulative solar PV capacity of 56 MW.
Indianapolis is an example of a city which has vastly improved its solar energy usage after the implementation of a voluntary “feed-in-tariff” program. Feed-in-tariff programs are designed to accelerate investment in renewable energy sources. Typically, these programs work by guaranteeing that customers who own a renewable energy generating project or facility receive a set price for all of the electricity they generate and provide to the grid.
Indianapolis’ program works by paying solar power producers a reduced, above-market rate for solar power generated. After the feed-in-tariff program was established in 2010, Indianapolis became an attractive place for solar developers to generate power, and ever since the city has seen increasing adoption rates. As of 2014, over 59 megawatts of solar power is in development in Indianapolis, which should boost the city’s total solar PV capacity up to 98 megawatts.
Despite the success of Indianapolis’s feed-in-tariff program, the city cancelled the policy mechanism in March of 2013. Environment Ohio’s study predicts that this change may slow the growth of solar energy systems in Indianapolis going forward, though Indianapolis Power & Light (a local utility) still provides net metering along with a small-scale solar PV incentive program that provides rebates for qualifying residential solar installations.
6. San Antonio, Texas
One of a few southwestern cities on our list, San Antonio, Texas’ cumulative solar PV capacity is 84.
San Antonio is one of a number of cities on our list of solar elites that have municipal utility companies that encourage solar PV systems; partnerships with local utilities, the study notes, are one of the most effective strategies for encouraging the growth of solar energy systems. CPS Energy, San Antonio’s municipal utility, has set a goal of generating 20 percent of its electricity demand from renewable energy sources by 2020. Further, the utility company would like at least 100 megawatts of electricity to come from non-wind renewable sources, a goal which spells big growth for solar companies.
Environment Ohio’s study also noted that for cities like San Antonio, which are prone to drought (particularly as the effects of climate change become more severe), solar power can be a lifesaver for city residents. Solar power, the study notes, can help these cities avoid millions of gallons of water waste by eliminating the need for hydroelectric power systems.
5. Honolulu, Hawaii
Honolulu, Hawaii’s cumulative solar PV capacity is 91. It’s important to notes, however, that though the study, conducted by Environment Ohio, is based on each city’s cumulative capacity. On a per capita basis, Honolulu actually ranks first when it comes to solar energy capacity. The study groups Honolulu, along with several other cities, into a separate grouping of “solar stars,” all which produce more than 50 megawatts of solar energy per capita.
The study also notes that the state of Hawaii as a whole boasts the highest rate of solar PV grid penetration in the country, which is likely due in part to the high cost of electricity on the islands. Solar energy has become a popular alternative to grid-powered electricity in the state, especially as the cost of solar equipment continues to drop. But switch to solar power also falls in line with the state’s values, as well; Hawaii has one of the strictest renewable energy standards in the country, requiring that 40 percent of the electricity on the islands be generated by renewable sources by 2030. Further, because of the high cost of electricity in Hawaii, solar energy has already achieved “grid parity” in the state. That is, electricity from solar energy sources is already cheaper than electricity from the grid, even without any government incentives.
In order to meet it’s strict renewable energy standards goal, Hawaii has taken a number of measures to increase the amount of electricity generated by solar power over the years. The Hawaii state legislature has created terms for “on-bill financing,” a measure which allows homeowners to pay for their solar electric systems over time via their utility bill, a measure that has made solar energy systems a more viable option for many Hawaiians.
Hawaii is also one of a number of states, including New Jersey, Texas, and Virginia, which have passed “solar rights policies,” a measure that protects homeowners’ access to solar power by overriding local ordinances or homeowners’ association policies which discourage or forbid solar PV systems on their properties.
4. San Jose, California
The city of San Jose, California’s cumulative solar PV capacity is 94 MW. The Environment Ohio study notes that San Jose, along with Philadelphia, has taken steps to decrease the number of “soft costs” associated with solar PV systems by reducing the permitting fees associated with the systems. The city has also made an effort to streamline its application process for the systems as well; in San Jose, for instance, the application for a solar permit is just one page long.
3. Phoenix, Arizona
Phoenix, Arizona’s cumulative solar PV capacity is 96 MW, bringing the southwestern city up 3rd place on our list. Aside from being (obviously) a very sunny metropolis, Phoenix is also one of a number of cities on our list that uses “net metering” as a method of encouraging the adoption of solar energy systems. The program, the study notes, “has helped Phoenix rank third on our list for cumulative solar PV capacity and sixth for watts of solar power per person.”
Net metering, the Environment Ohio study explains, is a state policy which encourages the use of solar energy systems in apartment buildings and complexes by allowing electric customers in the building(s) to share the benefits of a rooftop solar installation, even if their meters are not directly connected to the device. In this way, “credits at one solar energy location can offset energy bills at another location.”
2. San Diego, California
One of several California cities on our list, San Diego comes in second place, with 107 MW of cumulative solar PV capacity in 2013.
Environment Ohio’s report notes that California has a number of state-wide programs which have contributed to San Diego’s success as a “solar city.” California’s statewide programs are also some of the earliest in the country, extending back to 2006, when the state legislature created the “Million Solar Roofs Initiative,” an initiative that is now a part of the “Go Solar California” campaign. The campaign now directs the investment of more than $3 billion small-scale solar electric power systems, and is on track to reach its 2016 goal of increasing California’s solar electric capacity to 3,000 MW.
1. Los Angeles, California
Sunny Los Angeles, California tops our list. In 2013 the city’s cumulative solar PV capacity was 132 megawatts. It’s worth noting that Los Angeles has a big lead when it comes to solar energy; the city trumps it’s runner up, San Diego, by 25 megawatts.
Los Angeles has utilized a number of different tactics to help the city “solarize.” The star-studded SoCal hub is one of several cities nationwide that has partnered with utility companies to encourage the adoption of solar PV energy systems, for instance.
The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, the utility with whom the city has partnered, launched the nation’s largest feed-in-tariff program as of July 2013. The program is likely to bring another 100 megawatts of solar power to the city, and was implemented with the aim of helping the state reach its lofty renewable energy goals. California aims to generate 33 percent of its energy by renewable sources by 2020, Environment Ohio reports. Additionally, it’s predicted that the project will also help to create more than 2,000 jobs and generate $300 million in investments for the city of Los Angeles.