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Bottom Up: How to Improve City-Level Solar Innovation

While congressional leaders attack one another, city mayors, business leaders, and community organizations are working together to transform cities.

Many in the sustainable energy space are shifting their attention from federal policy makers and toward city-level efforts. Gone for now are any realistic expectations of top-down-driven solutions. While congressional leaders attack one another, mayors, business leaders, and community organizations are working together to transform their cities. This presents an ideal setting for the advancement of technologies like solar power. The city can serve as a proving ground where such technologies take hold and grow into mature industries.


Consider solar power. Critics frequently claim that the technology itself is simply too expensive for mass-market appeal. In reality, though, the actual solar module represents less than half of the total cost of installation. The actual cost of hardware has fallen over 70 percent since 2005. So where's the problem?

For what should be a straightforward process, the permitting and inspections of solar installations tends to be unnecessarily costly and time consuming. In many parts of the country, these soft costs can account for over half of the installation. In Germany, the cost of solar is much cheaper than in the United States. Subsidies have long been credited for the low costs, but a recent report by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory indicates that significantly lower soft costs are contributing to the success of the German market.

By removing administrative bottlenecks, local governments can help create a more favorable environment for the solar industry. But every jurisdiction is different. To give context, the permitting process in Denver averages two days, whereas in New York City the same process takes an entire year! Within every community you have building officials, chief engineers, plan examiners, and inspectors, each with unique approaches. Meanwhile, on the other side, you have an entire industry eager to complete projects as quickly and affordably as possible. Reconciling the motivations of each can go a long way toward advancing the industry.

My organization, Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) and the Colorado Solar Energy Industries Association (COSEIA) recently formed the Solar Friendly Communities program in an attempt to improve the environment for solar installations. Last week, we brought together officials from several Colorado communities and representatives of the solar industry for a series of workshops aimed at communicating clear steps for reducing time and money spent on solar projects.

Perhaps the most productive output of the workshop was simply creating a conversation between the industry and the cities. You may assume each are by now well acquainted with each other’s perspective, but we found a great deal of opportunity to improve communication. By offering a 12-step roadmap for process improvements, we gave each group a clear set of options to consider. Over time, as they work together in new ways, the communities and industry representatives will build a better foundation for the industry to grow.

The solar industry is not alone in its challenges. Energy efficiency, electric vehicles, and other solutions to our energy issues face similar issues. While these industries continue to drive improvements in design, technology, and costs, we also must address a simple flaw in the way we work together.

If you look at the problem as a challenge of building an ecosystem of interdependent decision makers, you can identify breakdowns in interaction and information exchange. Decisions made in isolation are often poorly made, but by ensuring those decisions are based on and formed through better collaboration, you can unlock the potential to radically improve the process. It’s basic communication, but it’s effective.

Photo via Flickr (cc) user Mountain Ash.

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Coconut bowls


Cocostation

Who says sustainable can't also be stylish? These cute coconut bowls were handmade using reclaimed coconuts, making each piece one of a kind. Not only are they organic and biodegradable, but they're also durable, in case your dinner parties tend to get out of hand. The matching ebony wood spoons were polished with the same coconut oil as the bowls.

Cocostation Set of 2 Vietnamese Coconut Bowls and Spoons, $14.99; at Amazon

Solar powered phone charger

Dizaul

Why spend time looking around for an outlet when you can just harness the power of the sun? This solar powered phone charger will make sure your phone never dies as long as you can bask in the sun's rays. As an added bonus, this charger was made using eco-friendly silicone rubber. It's win-win all around.

Dizaul Solar Charger, 5000mAh Portable Solar Power Bank, $19.95; at Amazon, $19.95; at Amazon

Herb garden kit

Planter Pro

Put some green in your life with this herb planter. The kit comes with everything you need to get a garden growing, including a moisture meter that helps you determine if your herbs are getting the right amount of food to flourish. All the seeds included are certified to be non-GMO and non-hybrids, meaning you can have fresh, organic herbs right at your fingertips.

Planter Pro's Herb Garden Cedar Planter, $39.00; at Amazonedar Planter, $39.00; at Amazon

Reusable Keurig cups

K & J

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Low-flow shower head

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Low-flow water fixtures can cut down your water consumption, which saves you money while also saving one of the Earth's resources. This shower head was designed with a lighter flow in mind, which means you'll be able to cut down on water usage without feeling like you're cutting down on your shower.

Speakman Low Flow Shower Head, $14.58; at Amazon

Bamboo safety razor

Zomchi

Instead of throwing away a disposable razor every time you shave, invest in an eco-friendly, reusable one. This unisex shaver isn't just sustainable, it's also sharp-looking, which means it would make a great gift for the holidays.

Zomchi Safety Razor, $16.99; at Amazon

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