By Carlin Rosengarten and Danny Macri
When you see solar panels on residential rooftops do you ever wonder how these power producing panels got there? How did the homeowner pay for the state-of-the-art system? Did they receive government assistance? In almost all cases, the answer is yes.
It turns out that local governments are key drivers of the burgeoning small-scale solar power sector, with municipal policies setting the playing field for homeowners and solar photovoltaic (PV) firms. In Connecticut, the General Assembly has established a renewable energy portfolio standard requiring in-state utilities to obtain at least 23 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by 2020. The state government also requires building codes to have energy efficiency standards, allows permit fee waivers for renewable energy developers, and has directed state agencies and universities to purchase more and more renewable energy.
Beyond a renewable-friendly regulatory framework, creating a renewable-friendly economic landscape is perhaps the most important way government encourages clean energy adoption. To this end, Connecticut’s State House in 2011 created the Clean Energy Finance and Investment Authority (CEFIA), commonly known as the Connecticut Green Bank (CGB), to fund renewable energy programs and stimulate demand for renewable energy, with a particular focus on solar. The CGB has been very successful – in 2014 it surpassed a 2022 target of 30 MW installed residential solar capacity, enough to power 5,000 homes. In concert with the CGB, the state has instituted a Residential Solar Investment Program (RSIP), Solarize Connecticut initiative, and it has taken advantage of the US Department of Energy’s Sun Shot Initiative.
These efforts have combined to make residential solar a budding success story in Connecticut. Yet that success is not evenly distributed throughout the Nutmeg State. Policymakers in Hartford can only do so much to set the table for small-scale solar energy producers. Municipal leaders share part of the responsibility for facilitating residential solar uptake, and some Connecticut towns and cities are much more effective than others at helping residents generate solar power from their homes. Which municipal governments are the best at nurturing residential solar and which need to step up their efforts?
Municipal solar scorecards tell detailed story
A new report commissioned by the CGB and produced by Yale University’s Data-Driven Environmental Solutions Group (Data-Driven Yale) answers this question, pointing to where municipalities do well and where they can improve on facilitating residential solar within city and town limits. Coventry, Ashford, and Mansfield come out on top – placing 1, 2, and 3, respectively – as the state’s premier towns for residential solar energy deployment. Sherman, Redding, and Bridgeport round out the index’s worst-performing municipalities. There is much more to the study than these rankings, however, and the rankings themselves must be unpacked to gain a full understanding of the local laws and incentives that drive residential solar energy deployment in Connecticut.
To build this index of Connecticut’s cities and towns, Data-Driven Yale researchers surveyed solar installers, municipal building departments, energy task forces and committees, and zoning officials and sourced data from the state’s energy programs, government offices, solar firms, and other relevant offices. The data was analyzed and municipalities scored in 18 separate indicators under five distinct categories: Solar Adoption, Clean Energy Engagement, Information Availability, Permit Process, and Permit Time & Cost. The category marks were then combined to create composite scores for each city and town. (Download the full report for additional information on data collection and analysis methodologies).
Unpacking the Index
A single score assigned to a municipality based on the results of complex political and economic interactions must be considered in context to be meaningful. The Connecticut Municipal Solar Scorecards website gives this context, with visualizations of the rankings, including category and indicator scores, municipal peer groups, and much more information about the study. Each municipality is shown on a map of Connecticut with its solar scores and its relative rank among all 169 towns and cities considered in the study as well as its rank within its peer group, or regional council of government (COG). The COGs are nine formal governance structures established by the state Office of Policy and Management (OPM). This subgrouping affords comparisons between cities and towns with the most similar geographies and political contexts pertinent to solar power deployment.
No matter the details, ranking municipalities on any metric is bound to ruffle feathers in city halls. Bridgeport, which ranked dead last, took issue with its low position. “We find the results of this survey highly erroneous,” Av Harris, spokesman for Bridgeport Mayor Joe Ganim’s administration, told the Hartford Courant. “We continue to be busy with solar work throughout the city.”
Drill down into Bridgeport’s scorecard and you find that Mr. Harris’s contention, that the city is “busy with solar work”, is in fact reflected in Data-Driven Yale’s study. The city’s total installed solar capacity, 698 kW, is quite good – about 10% greater than the state’s municipal average – and it scores well in this indicator, as would be expected. Yet with solar panels on only five in 1,000 owner-occupied households, Bridgeport’s per household capacity is 25 percent of the state mean. This weak solar deployment on a per household basis in part stems from “soft costs” – the costs of permitting, labor, and customer acquisition – which, in 2015, accounted for 46 percent of the total cost of Connecticut’s residential solar energy systems. In Bridgeport, for instance, the permit fee for a household rooftop solar energy panels exceeds $1,000 – more than double the state average – and installers reported that they would spend 12 hours dealing with permit paperwork – four times the state average. If you were to examine Bridgeport’s scorecard you would find that the city’s low marks in the Permit Process and Time & Cost categories, issues that together contribute to 42.5 percent of its combined score, sink its ranking to last in its peer group and last in the state.
Municipalities and residents should recognize that the scorecard’s scope is limited to residential solar electricity generation. The scores does not take into account other important initiatives that municipalities undertake. This limited scope may explain why Bridgeport was quick to dismiss their score as “erroneous,” as the city is making strides with other sustainability initiatives. The BGreen Bridgeport sustainability plan sets municipal targets for waste reduction, green buildings, green spaces, water, and climate change for 2020. And indeed, on municipal engagement and municipal installed solar indicators, the city scores well, especially among its peers. The scorecards reflect these brights spots and other details regarding solar deployment. Yet it is important to keep in mind that the scores do not represent an overall environmental or sustainability assessment.
The solar scorecards are not intended to shame city halls; they are meant to point out bottlenecks in municipal residential solar programs – problem areas that can be fixed with smart local policies. The scorecards, and in particular the peer groupings, also point to solutions, showing local leaders which towns and cities are best at helping their residents produce solar energy and how these municipalities are accomplishing their efficient deployment.
“By showing the wide range of practices and costs for permitting solar,” said Danny Macri, Research Fellow with Data-Driven Yale, “we acknowledge the high performers and show other municipalities that if towns like them are able to streamline permitting and offer reasonable fees they may be able to do so as well.”
Industry groups too can use the scorecards to gain a better understanding of solar’s regulatory landscape in Connecticut.
“The scorecard gives solar installers a sense of where it is cheapest to install solar in Connecticut,” said Michael Trahan, executive director of solar industry group SolarConnecticut, “and for property owners thinking about installing solar to compare their town’s policies on solar to others.”
Comparison is a great motivator. By comparing towns and cities in Connecticut, this report shows that a level playing field within state lines does not always translate to even footing at the local level. Municipalities must stream-line permitting processes and reduce transaction costs in order to nurture residential solar for everyone.
ADDENDUM: To learn more about the design of the scorecards and how to interpret a municipality’s score watch our webinar which we hosted on July 28, 2016.