ICMA and TSF Launch SolSmart Designation Program

The International City/County Management Association (ICMA) and The Solar Foundation (TSF) launched the SolSmart designation program. SolSmart will recognize leading solar cities and counties, as well as empower new communities to advance through no-cost technical assistance.

A core component of the technical assistance program are the SolSmart Advisors, fully-funded temporary staff embedded in up to 40 communities to help each achieve designation. Communities interested in pursuing SolSmart designation, receiving technical assistance, and applying to host an advisor can learn more and take action on SolSmart’s website.

SolSmart is funded by the U.S Department of Energy SunShot Initiative through the Solar Powering America by Recognizing Communities (SPARC) funding opportunity. Over the three-year, federally-funded portion of the program, SolSmart will recognize more than 300 communities that cut red tape around going solar and make it possible for more American homes and businesses to use solar energy to meet their electricity needs.

SolSmart national designation will signal that a community is “open for [solar] business,” helping to attract local economic development and create solar jobs. Attracting new solar businesses can help communities deliver cost savings for solar customers and local governments while new solar installations can help communities achieve their climate goals.

“Our city has worked hard to make solar more affordable and easier for our residents and small businesses to install,” says City Manager Scott Wingerson of Gladstone, Mo. “We have seen firsthand how our actions have led to considerable social and economic benefits locally. The solar panels that have been installed at our water treatment plant have served to partially offset the annual utility costs at this facility. Solar gives us another tool to help manage operational costs. SolSmart presents cities and counties nationwide with an opportunity to realize similar benefits, and I encourage every community to join Gladstone and get involved.”

The SolSmart program seeks to address solar “soft costs,” which are business processes or administrative costs that can increase the time and money it takes to install a solar energy system. Local governments are in a unique position to reduce these costs and to promote the use of solar in their jurisdictions.

SolSmart offers three levels of designation: Bronze, Silver and Gold. Communities can earn points to achieve designation tiers by taking action across eight categories. To achieve designation, communities must meet minimum requirements pertaining to two main categories: permitting, as well as planning, zoning and development regulations. SolSmart communities then have flexibility in achieving the remaining points toward designation in six special-focus categories.

“The role of local governments in building stronger and more resilient communities has never been greater,” says ICMA Executive Director Robert J. O’Neill Jr. “Cities, towns and counties consume a large portion of the nation’s electricity, which is why they can also have a significant impact on the financial, environmental, and economic health of the country by adopting solar energy technologies. The SolSmart program will recognize that impact.”

ICMA will lead the effort to designate communities under SolSmart by reviewing applications and determining whether a community meets the criteria for designation. Communities that apply and do not reach the base designation level will be referred to TSF and their team to receive no-cost technical assistance to help the community qualify for designation. The SolSmart technical assistance program includes the opportunity for communities to host fully-funded temporary staff called SolSmart Advisors. These program ambassadors will travel to communities selected through an open, competitive process and provide personalized, hands-on assistance to help each host community achieve SolSmart designation.

“The Solar Foundation and its technical assistance partners have extensive experience working with communities to implement best practices,” says Andrea Luecke, president and executive director of The Solar Foundation. “We look forward to collaborating with local governments on SolSmart to tackle soft cost barriers and establish robust solar markets. Additionally, we are excited to roll out the SolSmart Advisors program, and encourage all communities pursuing designation to apply to host an Advisor by mid-June.”

ICMA will be supported by the National Civic League, Home Innovation Research Labs, Meister Consultants Group, and TSF. Joining TSF on the technical assistance team are the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Meister Consultants Group, the National League of Cities, the National Association of Counties, the Solar Energy Industries Association, the Electric Power Research Institute, the Regulatory Assistance Project, and Brooks Engineering.

National Survey: Thirty-two Percent of Local Governments Have Adopted a Sustainability Plan

Thirty-two percent of local governments have adopted a sustainability plan, according to a national survey of U.S. cities and counties. Among the responding jurisdictions that have adopted plans, nearly 68 percent indicated that those plans contain goals or strategies related to economic development. Other plan priorities include energy conservation (60 percent) and disaster mitigation (48 percent).

Building on the data collected through a 2010 survey—which was the first nationwide study to establish benchmarks for sustainability initiatives among U.S. communities—Local Government Sustainability Practices 2015 was conducted by ICMA, the International City/County Management Association; the Sustainable Communities and Small Town and Rural Planning Divisions of the American Planning Association; Binghamton University; Cornell University; and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“Through this 2015 survey, ICMA and its partners can examine the progress of U.S. cities and counties in addressing issues that have a direct impact on a community’s sustainability,” says Andrea Fox, director, ICMA Center for Sustainable Communities. “While there has been much progress since we initiated the survey back in 2010, there are still a number of areas in which local communities can improve to enhance their capacity to endure and thrive.”

“Local governments can take a leadership role in promoting sustainability. We have seen this with some big cities,” says Mildred E. Warner, professor, City & Regional Planning, Cornell University. “But this national survey helps us understand motivators and drivers, especially for smaller and rural communities.”

The survey findings include the following notable results:

  • A plurality of local governments (47 percent) identified environmental protection as an overall community priority, in contrast to the nearly 91 percent that identified economic development as a key community issue.
  • Local governments rated the potential for fiscal savings (84 percent), leadership of local elected officials (82 percent), federal or state funding opportunities (75 percent), potential to attract development projects (71 percent), and concern over the environment (68 percent) as either significant or the most significant factors motivating sustainability efforts in their communities.
  • For 88 percent of jurisdictions, lack of funding is a significant or the most significant factor hindering local sustainability efforts, followed by state or federal funding restrictions (61 percent), lack of staff capacity/support (59 percent), lack of information on how to proceed (51 percent), lack of community/resident support (49 percent), and opposition of elected officials (49 percent).
  • In addition to conducting energy audits (63 percent), the most often cited actions taken by local governments to enhance energy efficiency included upgrading or retrofitting:
    • Facilities to increase lighting efficiency (64 percent)
    • Heating or air conditioning systems (49 percent)
    • Streetlights and other exterior lighting (45 percent)
    • Traffic signals to increase efficiency (35 percent)
  • Nineteen percent of local governments dedicated budget resources specifically to sustainability or environmental protection. When describing staffing, 9 percent had dedicated staff across multiple departments, another 9 percent had dedicated staff across a single department, and 6 percent had dedicated staff in either the chief-elected or chief-appointed official’s office. Forty-two percent of local governments had no staffing, recognition of goal accomplishment, or task force or committee dedicated to sustainability issues.
  • More than three-quarters of local governments indicated that they had no sustainable building policy in place. Only 12 percent of those that did indicated that the policy resulted in more green buildings.
  • Seventy-six percent of local governments indicated that they had responded to a major disaster during the past 15 years. Among those, 53 percent had dealt with a flood, 51 percent with a blizzard or ice storm, and 24 percent with a hurricane.
  • Despite the increasing importance of internet access to sustaining daily living, 84 percent of local governments have no plan or programs in place to provide such access to all residents.

To ensure that the local government response rate was high and more scientifically representative than for an electronic survey, the 2015 Local Government Sustainability Practices survey was administered in paper format via direct mail, although local governments were given the option to submit responses electronically. The survey was sent to 8,562 local governments and achieved a 22.2 percent response rate, with 1,899 local governments responding.