Photo: Social Security Administration via NREl Image Gallery

20 Cities at the Forefront of America’s Solar Energy Revolution

Reviewing Environment California’s Report: “Shining Cities:  At the Forefront of America’s Solar Energy Revolution”

By Roy L Hales

Screen-shot-2014-03-18-at-3.43.47-PMAmerica’s solar capacity has tripled during the past two years. Rooftop solar has been in the van of this development. Environment California’s new report “Shining Cities:  At the Forefront of America’s Solar Energy Revolution” focuses on the twenty cities on a  mere 0.1% of the nation’s land, that produce 7% of the solar energy.

Figure 7 from Environment California's report,  “Shining Cities:  At the Forefront of America’s Solar Energy Revolution”
Figure 7 from Environment California’s report, “Shining Cities:  At the Forefront of America’s Solar Energy Revolution”

“America has enough solar energy potential to power the nation several times over. Every one of the 50 states has the technical potential—through both utility-scale and rooftop solar energy systems—to generate more electricity from the sun than it uses in the average year. In 19 states, the technical potential for electricity generation from solar PV exceeds annual electricity consumption by a factor of 100 or more.”

This was presumably an unattainable potential that might, for example, require the entire nation to be transformed into a solar farm.

As regards present development, California continues to lead the charge. Los Angeles took the title of “America’s Solar City” off San Diego last year and continues to wear it, with 132 MW of installed capacity to the latter’s 107 MW. San Jose (#4 @ 94 MW) and San Francisco (#9 @ 26 MW) are also in the top 10.

They are followed closely by Phoenix AZ (#3 @ 96 MW),  Honolulu (#5 @ 91 MW) and San Antonio TZ ( #6 @ 84 MW).

Two Eastern cities – Indianapolis IN (#7 @ 56 MW) and New York (#8 @ 33 MW) – and Denver CO (#10 @ 25 MW) were also in the top 10.

The order is much different when calculated per capita. Honolulu is #1 and Los Angeles did not make the list of cities that have at least 50 Watts per person.

Table ES-2. The “Solar Stars” (Cities with More Than 50 Watts of Installed  Solar PV Capacity per Person, End of 2013)
Table ES-2. The “Solar Stars” (Cities with More Than 50 Watts of Installed
Solar PV Capacity per Person, End of 2013)

One of the surprises is rainy Portland, which made the top twenty (#15 @ 15 MW) through a combination of civic policy and local zeal.

“Portland’s path to solar leadership began in 2007 when the city was selected for the federal government’s “Solar America Cities” program. This program provided the city with funding and support for its efforts to develop local solar power. Two years later, when a neighborhood in Portland wanted to install solar panels, they partnered with the non-profit Energy Trust of Oregon to hold workshops, select a contractor and purchase the panels collectively, cutting costs for themselves and their solar installer.”

(Seattle did not make the top 20, being ranked #29 with 4 MW.)

Portland and Denver are both cited as examples of cities that are using solar on public buildings:

“Denver has installed 9.4 MW of solar power on city and county buildings, and the city has partnered with the Denver Public Schools to install solar power on 28 school buildings. To encourage community participation and support for city solar power, Portland has also launched “Solar Forward,” an initiative that asks community members to chip in to fund city solar projects.” 

Figure ES-2. Map of 57 Principal Cities Ranked by Cumulative Installed Solar PV Capacity, End of 2013
Figure ES-2. Map of 57 Principal Cities Ranked by Cumulative Installed Solar PV Capacity, End of 2013

Several cities are also commended for streamlining the permitting process. In San Jose, the paperwork has been reduced to a single page. San Francisco and Portland have also cut down and Chicago’s “Green Permit Program” reduces the wait to less than 30 days.

Many of us think of California companies like Figtree or Hero when discussing Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE), but there are also programs on the East Coast:

Connecticut has launched a statewide commercial PACE program, managed by the Clean Energy Finance and Investment Authority and endorsed by the Connecticut Bankers Association. This program has given commercial property owners loans to install onsite renewable energy or undergo energy efficiency upgrades, and enabled them to pay back these loans over a number of years on their property taxes.95 South Florida communities have also taken steps to create a financing district for commercial PACE. Cities including Miami and Coral Gables have joined the “Green Corridor District,” where a PACE program backed by Lockheed Martin, Barclays Capital and Ygrene Energy Fund is slated to fund $550 million in energy retrofits, which can include solar installations.

Cities with direct control over their utilities are in a strong position to promote solar. A number of these are mentioned in the report: Los Angeles CA (#1),  San Antonio TX (#6), New York (#8), Jacksonville FL (#13) and Austin TX (#16).

LA is commended for its Feed-in Tariff program:

“Municipal utilities may set up a feed-in tariff (FiT), which gives energy producers a fixed and long-term contract for the solar electricity produced. These are also known as CLEAN (Clean Local Energy Available Now) contracts, and their effectiveness depends on a number of factors including how quickly customers can get a return on their investment in solar power. 

“The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power launched the nation’s largest FiT program in July 2013, which will bring 100 MW of solar power online. This program will help the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power meet its state-mandated requirement of generating 33 percent of its energy.” 

New York has partnered with Con Edison to develop rooftop solar and exempts homeowners who install solar panels from sales tax.

Denver: Namaste Solar Electric & Vision Point Imagery - from the Cover
Denver CO: Namaste Solar Electric & Vision Point Imagery – from the Cover

Solar offer cities many benefits. (p 15) They produce the most energy on sunny days, when the demand for electricity is at its greatest. Unlike most other forms of energy, solar panels do not need water. (p 14) Nuclear and fossil fuel powered plants both need massive amounts of water, as a coolant, even during a drought.

“In drought-stricken Texas, for example, San Antonio and Austin are avoiding millions of gallons of water waste by transitioning to solar power. In California, where more than 90 percent of the state was experiencing severe to exceptional drought conditions as of February 2014, solar PV capacity in California cities will be an important energy solution in a state that cannot needlessly waste water on electricity generation.”

Furthermore, solar panels are not dependent on the grid. (p 13) They can prevent black-outs by reducing the strain on the grid.  Solar powered systems, with generators, supplied parts of the East coast with power after hurricane Sandy took the grid out.

Those are some of the highlights of Environment California’s report. It contains a lot of information. I would suggest you examine it for yourself via the following link:

(Image at top of page: Photo: Social Security Administration via NREL Image Gallery )

5 thoughts on “20 Cities at the Forefront of America’s Solar Energy Revolution”

  1. While we can anticipate great advances in solar tech, the current standard is quite sub. I am deeply concerned about several features of our solar so called “advancements” in cities or eleswhere.

    1. They are laden with toxic substances, which again often cannot be recycled….
    2. There are serious fire considerations with solar panels on rooftops. Fire departments are known to refuse to enter, because the electrical supply cannot be turned off, and also due to the toxic fumes that are killers.
    3. The huge, massive subsidies, are the prime enticement for solar. Nice if you can get it. I suspect soon you won’t.


    “New research shows, albeit unintentional, that generating electricity with solar panels can also be a very bad idea. In some cases, producing electricity by solar panels releases more greenhouse gases than producing electricity by gas or even coal. ”

    As the author says, solar panels don’t come falling out of the sky. They are manufactured: wafers, silicon, a few toxic chemicals….wham. And of course they don’t last. Imagine your cell phone…..outdated and problems within say 3 years? And where will all those panels be sitting after a new generation appears, say in less than 10 years?

    ” If we take a life expectancy of 3 years (already quite optimistic for most gadgets) and a solar insolation of 900 kWh/m² (quite optimistic too, since these things are not lying on a roof), the result is 1,038 gram CO2 per kWh in the worst case scenario (high-efficient mono-crystalline cells produced in the US). That means that it is better for the environment to power a gadget with electricity generated by coal, rather than by a solar panel.” So no free lunch…..I’d say get away from these roof top chimeras asap!

    1. I am going to pass your comment and my response on to Environment California, which released the report.

      One thing you should be aware of is the above article was about US rooftop solar, not US utility scale solar. The Federal subsidies you mention primarily apply to the latter.

      Re toxins: My knowledge of this subject is limited to an article I co-wrote, with Robert Lundahl, last summer.

      Note that it deals with events in Southern California, not the other 49 states (or Canada) and that we wrote it just prior to the Department of Toxic Substances Control issuing stricter regulations. I have not seen those new regulations.

      Our sources said there are toxin such as gallium arsenide, which California has listed as a known carcinogenic since 2008, “in solar modules, especially the new thin film ones.” They are believed to be harmless as long as the panel is intact and solar modules are pretty tough, BUT if they get dumped into landfills many are going to get broken and the toxins will leak out.

      There are places that can handle these panels. The question is how are we going to ensure they will make it there and not simply get dumped in landfills?

      Re the fire danger: I have heard the same story and reprinted this article about it

      My personal opinion is that these problems are manageable – if we do it – and I think of rooftop solar as one of few green cards in our deck.

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