These ‘Shining Cities’ will get you inspired about a sunny future

By Ross Sherman
Campaign for 100% Renewable Energy, Digital Organizer

American cities are embracing the power of solar energy, and many of the biggest cities are leading the way. It perhaps comes as no surprise that Los Angeles, the second most populous city in the country, is the top-ranked city for installed solar energy in Environment America’s latest Shining Cities report. Together, the top 20 U.S. cities have more solar capacity now than the entire country did in 2010. And even though those cities comprise just one- tenth of one percent of the country’s land mass, they account for four percent of its total solar capacity at the end of last year.

From left to right: Claire Rater, Canvass Director for Environment California Research & Policy Center; Michelle Kinman, Clean Energy Advocate for Environment California Research & Policy Center; Eric Garcetti, Mayor of Los Angeles; and Dan Jacobson, Environment California Research & Policy Center Director. Photo Credit: Office of Mayor Eric Garcetti.

Our biggest cities certainly deserve a lot of credit for the work they’ve done to accelerate the adoption of solar energy. However, they’re not alone. Cities and towns of all sizes are driving the transition to solar energy, and clean energy in general. In this blog, I’ll explore how some of these relatively under-the-radar cities are taking action to help make it easier for their communities and their residents to go solar.

Ypsilanti, Michigan (population 21,018)

From left to right: Dave Strenski, SolarYpsi; Amanda Edmonds, Mayor of Ypsilanti; Max Anthouard, Ypsilanti Fire Chief; and Nathan Murphy, Environment Michigan State Director

Ypsilanti, a city of just over 20,000 in southeastern Michigan and home to Eastern Michigan University, provides a great blueprint for how cities of any size can go big on solar energy. By the end of 2017, Ypsi had installed more than 50 watts of solar energy per person, which would have landed it in the “Solar Stars” category in the Shining Cities report, and helped it earn a SolSmart Gold designation. SolSmart is the national program that recognizes cities, counties and towns that foster the development of solar energy.

How did Ypsilanti do it? Well, much of its solar energy growth occurred with the assistance of a grassroots, volunteer project called SolarYpsi, which aims to bring more solar electricity online in the community through a variety of avenues. Over the past 12 years, SolarYpsi has helped install and encourage more than three dozen solar energy systems in the Ypsilanti area.

“The City of Ypsilanti believes deeply that now is the time for us to bring our values of sustainability and resilience into reality in ways that are accessible to many in our community”

— Mayor Amanda M. Edmonds

Bozeman, Montana (population 45,250)

Photo Credit: Onsite Energy

I bet that if I asked you to come up with a list of states leading the way for solar power, Montana probably wouldn’t come to mind (my sincere apologies to the Montanans reading this). But I have good news for you Montanans — Bozeman is highlighted in the Shining Cities report, ranking just ahead of Fort Collins, Colo., for solar energy per capita. Additionally, Helena and Missoula have earned silver and bronze SolSmart designations, respectively.

The city of Bozeman and Mayor Cindy Andrus — one of Environment America’s 180 Mayors for Solar Energy — have taken concrete steps to encourage more solar. They’ve set a goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 10 percent below 2008 levels by 2025, and to get there, the city has invested in its own solar energy systems, and changed the city code to remove barriers for residents to install solar panels on their roofs. For example, Bozeman recently partnered with the utility NorthWestern Energy to build a solar array at the city’s water reclamation facility

“Bozeman recognizes that clean solar energy helps to preserve our outdoor recreation economy, quality of life, and community resiliency. We are committed to expanding solar energy opportunities at the utility-scale and the local-level. We are streamlining our solar permitting processes, offering small grants to businesses for energy efficiency and renewable energy, and working alongside our utility to advance community solar.”

— Mayor Cyndy Andrus

El Paso, Texas (population 683,080)

Photo Credit: Flickr user Jasperdo, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

This border town is also a leader when it comes to solar energy. If El Paso were included in the Shining Cities rankings, it would place 18th in the entire country for total solar energy, just behind Austin (the report surveyed the 50 most populous U.S. cities, plus the most populous cities in each state not represented on that list). El Paso, with 54 megawatts of solar energy installed per person, would also qualify as a Solar Star.

The city has taken a number of actions to encourage solar development, and has also earned a SolSmart designation. These actions include creating an online checklist to guide residents through the often-confusing process of switching to solar energy, removing red tape so that permit applications for small solar systems are now turned around in just 24 hours, and for consolidating the number of inspections required for new solar installations.

However, outside forces could hamper El Paso’s solar progress. Its utility company, El Paso Electric, has imposed new fees on rooftop solar customers, which could discourage residents from going solar. This is something we’re seeing all across America: Despite the fact that solar energy is good for our environment and good for consumers, utilities are fighting rooftop solar because it threatens their bottom line.

“Distributed generation — or rooftop solar, as it is more commonly known — lowers a homeowner’s utility bill and provides a measure of energy independence, as well as supporting the electric grid by lowering demand. Rooftop solar also generates well-paying jobs. El Paso, the Sun City, should be leading the way on both fronts, and doing everything we can to support continued growth of rooftop solar.”

— Texas State Sen. José Rodríguez

Portland, Maine (population 66,937)

Photo Credit: Flickr user Wendell, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Last but not least, cold, snowy Portland, Maine, is a somewhat unexpected solar leader. The Atlantic coast city ranked 32nd in the country in Shining Cities — just in front of neighboring Manchester, New Hampshire — for solar energy installed per person.

Similar to many leading solar cities, the city of Portland has established goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and the adoption of renewable energy. Last year, the City Council passed a resolution establishing a goal to power municipal operations with 100 percent clean, renewable energy by 2040. And earlier this month, the Council adopted a goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by 2050 economy-wide, mirroring benchmarks set by the Paris Agreement.

Troy Moon is the Sustainability Coordinator for the City of Portland, Maine

This example really goes to show that the cities setting the pace for solar energy aren’t necessarily the sunniest or warmest cities. Believe me — growing up in neighboring Cape Elizabeth and spending many a winter there — if Portland, Maine, can do it, any city can.

“I am very proud that Portland is leading the way in the state of Maine for solar energy and one of my goals from when I was elected is to have 25% of Portland homes and businesses utilizing solar in some capacity within 10 years and we are well on our way. We have a lot of work to do and I look forward to continuing that work.”

— Mayor Ethan Strimling

With the Trump administration foregoing America’s leadership role on climate and renewable energy in many ways, it’s clear that progress on renewable energy must come from local and state governments across the country. As we’ve seen, many cities are stepping up and doing just that, but we have to keep pushing ahead in order to realize the vast benefits of renewable energy to our communities and our environment.

Think your city can do more to go solar? Check out our guide: 10 Ways Your City Can Go Solar.