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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