Sunrise Solar proposes ‘pollinator-friendly’ habitat as part of new community solar plan

Oakwood community solar

New York-based Sunrise Solar Solutions president and CEO Doug Hertz is proposing a 3,600-panel community solar farm at the rear of Oakwood Cemetery in Mount Kisco. Con Edison electricity customers within the same utility territory would be able to subscribe and have the solar power credited to their accounts at a discount, bringing their bills down to nearly zero and saving about 10%. Sunrise Solar Solutions is Westchester, N.Y.’s largest solar installation and development firm.

“The system will generate roughly 1.7 GWh (gigawatt-hours) each year, enough to power over 200 homes. The project will also provide much needed revenue to Oakwood for its continued operation,” Hertz said. “This project, designated by the New York Public Service Commission as a Community Distributed Generation site, will generate clean, renewable energy to be fed into the grid, and the energy will then be sold at a discount to residents and businesses in Mt Kisco and Northern Westchester.”

RELATED: Vote for our 2018 Project of the Year!

Another key aspect of the project, says Hertz, is the creation of a “pollinator-friendly” habitat. The site will use a native pollinator planting scheme around the field of panels. This will allow much deeper-rooted plantings than the mowed grass field that currently exists and will enhance the ability of the soil to absorb, filter and maintain water. It also provides a habitat for birds, bees and other pollinator species, a critical component of maintaining a healthy local ecosystem.

“This project will create the equivalent CO2 effect of 1,490 acres of U.S. forest each year. This is even without computing the value of the pollinator plantings,” says Hertz.

Hertz said that Sunrise Solar Solutions had entered into a 25 to 30-year lease with the cemetery, which will use the land for its intended purpose once the lease ends.

— Solar Builder magazine

Vote for the 2018 Solar Builder Project of the Year

After sifting through a ton of entries to our Project of the Year awards, we narrowed the field to 16 candidates that stood out for a variety of reasons. Some overcame the odds. Some will have lasting effects in their community. All of them now look to you, dear reader, to hear their story and vote. We know it will be impossible to choose just one, so we’re allowing you to select your three favorite. The projects are arranged below in descending order from the largest utility-scale project submitted to the smallest off-grid residential project. The ballot is at the bottom of the page. May everyone’s favorite win.

Largest solar landfill in North America

Solar FlexRack

Annapolis Renewable Energy Park | Annapolis, Md. | 18 MW

According to the EPA, the Annapolis Renewable Energy Park is the largest closed landfill solar project in North America. At 18 MW, it covers 80 acres of previously unusable landfill with 54,000 solar panels that will generate over 20,000 MWh of clean electricity each year. Contractors had to follow strict EPA protocols and state regulations, such as needing non-penetrating racking technology to prevent damage to the site’s environmental cap. Solar FlexRack’s Series B (ballasted) Pre-Cast solar mounting technology was selected which effectively transfers loads into the concrete block and allows for reductions in ballast thickness. Racking and modules aren’t the only equipment required to meet weight and quality requirements, either. Trucks are allowed in according to a careful schedule to prevent damage to the roads and to protect the environmental cap on the landfill. In the end, all these efforts converted a formerly toxic, unusable property the size of almost 60 football fields into a powerhouse supplier of clean energy that created over 100 new jobs.

  • Developer: BQ Energy
  • Contractor: EDF Renewables (groSolar)
  • Modules: Duke Energy Renewables (REC Solar)
  • Inverters: Power Electronics
  • Mounting: Solar FlexRack (Ballasted) B3P-X Pre-Cast

Local jobs commitment

MCE Solar One | Richmond, Calif. | 10.5 MW

The MCE Solar One project is a sprawling 60-acre, 10.5-MW ground-mount solar farm in Richmond, Calif. built on an old Chevron refinery. The project deployed approximately 80,000 modules using both a fixed tilt rack as well as single axis trackers, with RPCS supplying and installing the Array Technologies DuraTrack HZ v3 tracker for the SAT portion. Pre-development costs were covered in part by customers participating in MCE’s Deep Green 100% renewable energy service. MCE Solar One will generate renewable energy to power 3,417 homes per year. MCE and the city of Richmond also committed to a 50 percent local hire requirement, guaranteeing local benefits through clean energy job creation. In supporting this local hire requirement, MCE created over 300 jobs by partnering with RichmondBUILD, a program that focuses on developing skill in the high growth, high wage construction and renewable energy sectors.

  • Developer: Cenergy, sPower, Marin Clean Energy (MCE)
  • Contractor: RP Construction Services (RPCS)
  • Components: Not submitted

Designed for floods, winds

Gallup Solar Farm
Gallup River Plain Solar Farm | Gallup, N.M. | 9.8 MW

The land for this project was located in a 100-year-floodplain, which meant designing a system to withstand the conditions created by a flood of that magnitude. Standard Solar found a company that could design both the racking system and the pile foundations supporting it, but in its design process, they determined the major factor contributing to the pile design shouldn’t be the base-flood elevation condition, but the wind load — and designed it accordingly. In addition, Standard Solar negotiated a power-purchase agreement that did not require any upfront cost to complete the installation of the solar power plant. Even better, the city will pay the solar firm a flat rate for the production generated by the system over 20 years.

  • Developer: Standard Solar, Mangan Renewables, Wiser Capital
  • Contractor: Mangan Renewables
  • Modules: REC
  • Inverter: ABB
  • Racking: GameChange Solar

Overcoming the elements

Conti Solar Full Turnkey EPC on Middleton MA Project

Middleton Solar Park | Middleton, Mass. | 5.8 MW

The Middleton Solar Park’s stony terrain (80% solid ledge) and extreme weather required the project EPC, Conti Solar, to conquer the elements continually while constructing the 16,000 solar panel project on this 100-year-old Richardson Dairy Farm site. Three nor’easter storms dumped over 7 inches of snow in March, making it difficult for the crew to layout the field and drill the foundation system. Ensuing excessive water saturation caused pooling and muddy on-site areas that the crew had to continuously dewater. Underground electrical work required extra time spent digging additional pumping wells to keep the trenches from saturating with water and caving in. In addition, the crew discovered 3 acres of a 2-foot-deep manure dumping area that had to be removed and replaced with fill material. On the site itself, the team had to predrill all of the foundation screws, pull out numerous large rocks when trenching for wiring and break up solid areas with a hammer. In some locations, the ledge was continuous, so Conti Solar had to lay the conduit at the surface and cover it with concrete to avoid the substantial charge of hammering the whole area.

  • Developer: Falck Renewable
  • EPC: Conti Solar
  • Modules: JA Solar (360 watts)
  • Inverter: SMA Solar 2500 KVA
  • Mounting: TerraSmart

Massive community college solar carport

Chaffey Community College

Chaffey Community College District | Rancho Cucamonga, Calif. | 5.5 MW

This 5.5-MW system is the largest solar carport project to date for a California community college. The energy produced by the three systems will meet 90 percent of the District’s energy needs and is expected to save the District $28.5 million in energy costs over the life of the project. The system is comprised of solar carport structures on parking lots at Chaffey College and its campuses in Fontana and Chino, all in San Bernardino County. The project is expected to produce nearly 10 million KWh of energy in the first year, which is the equivalent to the amount needed to power approximately 1,375 average homes in California annually.

  • Developer: Borrego Solar Systems, Inc.
  • Contractor: M Bar C Construction, Inc.
  • Modules: LG
  • Inverters: SunGrow
  • Mounting: M Bar C Construction, Inc.

Buckeye State breakthrough

Cuyahoga County Landfill | Brooklyn, Ohio | 4 MW

This is the largest landfill solar project — and one of the largest solar projects of any kind — completed in Ohio to date. Landfill solar projects require particular expertise in managing sensitive sites under strict regulations from the EPA and state environmental agencies. The EPC firm must procure equipment based on quality, functionality and weight; prepare special foundations to support the solar panels; manage a variety of work crews; and schedule deliveries in careful sequence to meet all regulations. Sized at approximately 4 MW (DC), the array is large enough to supply approximately 5 percent of the electricity consumption for 16 county-owned commercial buildings, saving the County as much as $3 million on utility bills over the next 25 years through the solar agreement. The 20-year land lease will help the City of Brooklyn offset maintenance costs of approximately $400,000 over the course of the next 20 years.

  • Developer: IGS Solar
  • EPC: Conti Solar
  • Modules: First Solar Series 4
  • Inverter: SMA Solar
  • Mounting: RBI Solar

Virginia’s largest net-metered solar site

Green Applications

Green Applications | Gordonsville, Va. | 868 kW

This project is the largest net-metered DG project in the entire state of Virginia. Projects like these are helping to grow the market in Virginia showing that C&I solar works financially. Green Applications is one of the largest printers and distributors of textile merchandise and heat applied graphics on the East Coast, and the company had always planned to incorporate renewable energy into the facility. Green Applications partnered with Sun Tribe Solar to find the optimal solution for both their sustainability and financial goals. Working with the VirginiaSAVES program, Sun Tribe Solar was able to secure investors to move the project forward as a Power Purchase Agreement. The system consists of over 2,500 panels and will provide almost 50 percent of the facility’s energy usage. Inverters and racking were manufactured in the United States.

  • Developer: Sun Tribe Solar
  • Contractor: Sun Tribe Solar
  • Modules: REC
  • Inverter: KACO
  • Mounting: IronRidge

Net zero statement

IBEW solar project

IBEW 332 | San Francisco | 202.3 KW

This project is cool and innovative for a number of reasons: 1. Every load in the building was turned electric from gas to harness as much power from the sun as possible. 2. The building went from using $140,000 in utilities a year to $0. This building is now a net zero energy building. 3. The solar panels on the roof spell out “IBEW”, which is short for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW). The building is in the flight path for San Jose’s International Airport, and the solar array is clearly visible to passengers when landing. An LED lighting system is wrapped around the IBEW panels so that it is illuminated at night too. 4. Energy storage was also included in this project so that the core systems will continue in case of an outage. 5. The pipework and conduit in this project is absolutely beautiful. Solar and electrical work is as much an art form as it is a trade and science. 6. The project was fully financed and all equipment is covered by lifetime warranties.

  • Developer: Paradigm Power and Planning LLC
  • Contractor: Pacific Ridge Electric
  • Modules: Seraphim
  • Inverters: SMA
  • Storage: UPS
  • Mounting: IronRidge

Connected residential community

Altenergy Arbory

The Arbors of Culpepper | Culpepper, Va. | 187.44 kW

The Arbors at Culpepper is a 132-unit, EarthCraft Certified senior living rental facility located in Culpeper, Va. Because of the size of the building, four independent, metered grid power services were necessary to accommodate the needs of the facility. Altenergy, Inc. designed and installed a 187.44-kW ground-mount PV array on the property to supply power to three of the four services. The design and installation of the system took place during construction of the facility, and due to the difficulty in calculating the precise usage of a facility this size, Altenergy decided to implement a power distribution system to provide flexibility as the facility occupancy grows and usage changes. The 568-panel array feeds 13 inverters which can be routed to any of the three services to compensate for changes in usage over time. This is the largest, privately-owned PV array for a senior living facility in the region. Other systems of this scope for senior facilities in the area are owned by the local utility.

  • Developer: Altenergy, Inc.
  • Contractor: Altenergy, Inc.
  • Modules: Axitec 330 W
  • Fronius: Fronius Primo 12.5-1 TL
  • Mounting: Unirac GFT

Costs savings and a higher calling

cisterian school solar project

Cistercian School Project | Dallas | 156 kW

Pope Francis, in his 2015 encyclical Laudato si’ (Praise Be) issued a warning and call to action regarding the environment – specifically citing the need for “substituting fossil fuels and developing renewable energy sources.” This was one reason that Cistercian Preparatory School, located on 80 acres in the Dallas suburb of Irving, Texas, was interested in adopting solar for its campus. School administration, which includes a community of monks and priests serving the Cistercian order, feels that is a part of their Christian calling to be good stewards of God’s earth. School administrators also take seriously the need to be good stewards in the financial arena, and again, solar energy made sense for them — a direct correlation between reducing energy costs and being able to hold down tuition increases and fund other important budget items, like teacher salaries. Sunfinity Renewable Energy developed an initial system that is 464 panels on two buildings, and the school hopes to expand their solar capabilities in the future. Oh, and the installation took place in the spring of 2018 while school was in session – but without disruption of any school activities.

  • Developer: Sunfinity Renewable Energy
  • Contractor: Sunfinity Renewable Energy / Green Light Solar
  • Modules: Boviet
  • Inverter: CPS America
  • Mounting: Unirac

Sustainable food supply

Farm Fresh Produce | Clinton, N.C. | 91 kW

From sweet potatoes to bell peppers, butternut squash to blueberries, Farm Fresh Produce is a major food distributor across the globe. The entire Farm Fresh operation is designed to work toward an optimized carbon footprint, by using natural pesticides, conserving water in the fields, and even deploying advanced logistics to minimize road-based emissions. In 2018, Cape Fear Solar Systems installed 260 solar panels on the Farm Fresh sweet potato packaging facility, which now helps power their operations. Farm Fresh relies on the sun to grow their crops and now they will rely on the sun to power their distribution center which supplies produce across the world. “Solar is a fantastic fit for Farm Fresh. Not only is solar a sound investment for the company but it aligns perfectly with their sustainability model,” stated Cape Fear Solar Systems Project Manager, Robert Parker.

  • Developer: Cape Fear Solar Systems
  • Contractor: Cape Fear Solar Systems
  • Modules: SunPower
  • Inverters: SolarEdge
  • Mounting: PCM Solar

An aerial billboard

Guido Solar

Guido Construction | San Antonio, Texas | 85 kW

Freedom Solar’s one-of-a-kind project for Guido & Companies Inc. uses solar panels to spell out the word “GUIDO” on the building’s rooftop to double as creative aerial advertising. The construction company is located right next to the San Antonio International Airport, at 8526 Vidor Avenue, so people flying in or out of the airport get a prime view of the company’s large solar panel billboard. Not only will this solar project continue to save Guido & Companies Inc. money, but the advertising value of the solar array “billboard” will also increase in value as passenger records at the Alamo City Airport continue to steadily increase. More than 933,000 passengers passed through San Antonio International Airport in July 2018, setting an all-time high for the local airport. The San Antonio Airport also hit new passenger records for the past two consecutive years. Officials expect that, at the current rate, the passenger count for 2018 will exceed 10 million. That’s 10 million eyeballs on the innovative, forward-thinking, dual-purpose solar array aerial advertising. The 85-kilowatt project is comprised of 260 SunPower modules, meets more than 55 percent of Guido’s energy needs, and will pay for itself in less than four and a half years.

  • Developer: Freedom Solar Power
  • Contractor: Freedom Solar Power
  • Modules: SunPower
  • Inverters: SMA
  • Mounting: Schletter

From biker rally to solar rally

Harley Davidson quest renewables

Harley-Davidson Rally Point at Sturgis Plaza | Sturgis, S.D. | 54.6 kW

The Harley-Davidson Rally Point in the Sturgis Plaza is used as a central gathering point during the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally that takes place annually and for other public events during the year. The system was constructed and installed in just five days in June. Initially, the city was going to purchase fabric canopies to shade the plaza, but when they realized the fabric system would cost nearly as much as solar, they changed directions, not to mention the fact that 40 percent of the building’s usage would be offset in the summer (and 80 percent in the winter). The biggest challenge was Interconnection Systems out of Central City, Neb., had to bore a 600 foot-long tunnel from the plaza to city hall. Though not typical for QuadPod solar canopy installations, the steel for the system was requested to be powder coated black and looks even cooler than usual.

  • Developer: Interconnection Systems, Inc.
  • Contractor: Quest Renewables
  • Modules: Heliene (60M-HBLK)
  • Inverter: Fronius
  • Mounting: Quest Renewables

Taking the governor off-grid

Calif. Governor Brown’s Micro Grid | Williams, Calif. |14 kW

California Governor Jerry Brown has a nice property that sits off on its own, except it’s five miles away from any utility power. A bunch of solar companies in the area were contacted to install a solution, but not a lot of companies do off grid or battery-based projects. Eventually, after researching contractors on YouTube, Jason Andrade and West Coast Sustainables popped up, who has years of experience that proved valuable in this highly detailed off-grid / microgrid that now supplies autonomous power for the entire property. “We used components that could be easily expanded and incorporated the arrays to be functional shade structures,” Andrade said. The system consists of 24 kW of OutBack Radian inverters, 14 kW SolarWorld modules, 34 kWh Simpliphi Lithium-Iron batteries and a Kohler 24-kW propane backup inverter.

  • Developer: West Coast Sustainables
  • Contractor: West Coast Sustainables
  • Modules: SolarWorld
  • Inverter: OutBack
  • Storage: SimpliPhi Power
  • Mounting: Mt Solar / Ironridge

The creation of a new regional solar training program

OMCO solar training program

Old Colony Regional Vocational Technical School | Rochester, Mass. | 10 kW

OMCO Solar got together with Solar Frontier and Cypress Creek Renewables to create the Old Colony Regional Vocational Technical High School’s new Solar Training Program, in partnership with the Massachusetts Workforce Skills Capital Grant. A renewed emphasis on vocational and technical schools is giving Massachusetts students the opportunity to prepare themselves for higher paying jobs in industries, like solar. The opportunity to have access to current solar mounting systems and modules, along with guidance for the instructors at Old Colony Regional Vocational Technical High School from the professionals at OMCO, is vital for meaningful skills training.

  • Developer: OMCO Solar / Cypress Creek Renewables
  • Contractor: OMCO Solar / Cypress Creek Renewables / Massachusetts Workforce Skills Capital Grant
  • Modules: Solar Frontier / SF-165 solar modules (x12)
  • Inverters: Schneider Electric
  • Mounting: OMCO Solar

Tracker in the nick of time

950 Glendower Street | Ashland, Oregon | 8.5 kW

The resident at 950 Glendower Street in Ashland had a strong desire to utilize the sun to supply all of her power needs, along with the security of a battery storage system.When she inquired with the city and local installers she was disappointed to learn that shading from surrounding trees would prevent the city’s $.50/W incentive (while not fully meeting her power desires), and that time was almost up for Oregon $7,500 tax credit. To the rescue came Ashland’s STracker, providing a customized Model S1 tracker (with an increased pivot-height to avoid roof conflicts, a manual stow button for parties, and a first-ever building-department fail-safe stow battery-backup). Enphase IQ6+ microinverters and electrical were provided by Alternative Energy Systems (AES) of Talent Oregon. Willpower Electric of Medford Oregon later (and under separate contract) added an Outback battery system to round out the residential island system. The array flat stow direction was rotated 90 degrees after it was discovered that the original position caused rain runoff to produce load noise as it hit the existing roof rain-gutter system.

  • Developer: Sharpe Energy Solutions (SES)
  • Contractor: Sharpe Energy Solutions (SES)
  • Modules: Silfab
  • Inverter: Enphase
  • Storage: OutBack
  • Mounting: Stracker Inc.

2018 Project of the Year Vote

Select up to three of your favorite solar projects from the list of candidates above to be our 2018 Project of the Year.

— Solar Builder magazine

SunShare Community Solar Garden project in Colorado kicks off with hands-on “panel-raising” event


Community solar developer SunShare launched its Imboden Solar Project with a solar panel-raising event that took place recently in Watkins, Colo. The celebration featured U.S. Representative and Colorado gubernatorial candidate Jared Polis along with numerous representatives from the Colorado solar industry including the Colorado Solar Energy Industries Association, Coalition for Community Solar Access, GRID Alternatives, and Xcel Energy.

“I am committed to our state being powered 100% by renewable energy by 2040, and community solar gardens like this will definitely move us towards that goal,” said Representative and Colorado gubernatorial candidate Polis. “They are a great way to broaden access to clean renewable energy that directly benefits Colorado communities while also creating green jobs for Coloradans to boost the local economy.”

RELATED: Community solar wave sweeps through country — how solar installers benefit

Attendees enjoyed a hands-on experience installing solar panels with E Light Construction for a ground-mounted community solar garden named Imboden V that is located 10 miles southeast of Denver International Airport. Two 2-megawatt (MW) community solar gardens are under construction and will join three additional 2 MW gardens that are already operational to deliver 10 total MW of solar energy. The subscribers to these gardens include The Cities of Arvada and Westminster, and low-income partners such as the Housing Authorities of Adams and Jefferson Counties.

“Now, individuals and organizations that were unable to install solar on their rooftops can choose community solar and benefit from clean, affordable electricity,” said David Amster-Olszewski, SunShare’s founder and CEO. “As one of the first community solar companies, we are proud to be at the forefront of a rapidly expanding segment of the renewable energy industry.”

SunShare is headquartered in Denver and has developed over 85 MW of solar gardens in Colorado and Minnesota and serves the largest active subscriber base in the community solar industry. SunShare’s Community Solar Gardens enable homeowners, renters, and small businesses that may not otherwise have the ability to install PV panels on their home or building to participate in and benefit from renewable energy.

— Solar Builder magazine

Meet Fellowship Energy, a company financing solar systems for faith-based organizations

St Stephens progress

St. Stephens project in progress.

Sustainability is often an important aspect of a faith-based community’s mission, but churches, parochial schools and other nonprofits have been left out of the solar revolution due to their inability to take advantage of federal solar tax incentives and other challenges. Places of worship was one segment highlighted in this NREL look at solar potential in low-income areas, and a new entrant in the clean energy finance space, Fellowship Energy, wants to develop solutions to address religious organizations and parochial schools specifically. Its first solar installation for a faith-based community in Richmond, Virginia, was part of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) SunShot Program.

The project provides St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, one of the largest Episcopal churches in the United States, with a 50-kW rooftop PV system that produces an estimated 65 MWh annually of clean energy – enough to supply 14 percent of the church’s electrical load. Fellowship Energy’s finance solution allows St. Stephen’s to go solar with no upfront cost, realize an immediate reduction in utility bills and improve cash flow while actively participating in the creation of a more sustainable future.

“Funds that are freed up from often sizeable utility bills can go to serve the community and causes that these organizations support,” notes Philip Kwait, founder and CEO of Fellowship Energy. “Making these dollars available for community service is the real benefit of Fellowship Energy’s efforts. These are the real customers we seek to serve.”

Virginia-based solar developer Performance Solar provided design and installation services for the project. Other local firms involved include Excel Electric as master electrician, responsible for permitting, installation and testing, and Advanced Engineering for structural review.

— Solar Builder magazine

Setting an example: Three ways for U.S. jurisdictions to make solar energy a priority

sun shining through

In our cover feature for Sept/Oct, we look at the inefficiencies in local permitting and interconnection processes that are holding back solar energy adoption in pockets across the country. Check out the full feature here. On the flip side of the issues noted are communities making an effort to revise out-dated wording and ineffective practices, guided in large part by SolSmart, a U.S. Department of Energy funded recognition program for communities that have taken steps to reduce solar costs and barriers and promote solar adoption. Here are three of our favorite examples.

Buying Power

Goshen, Ind., achieved the SolSmart Gold designation and installed 103 watts of solar PV per capita, placing it ahead of places like Sacramento, Denver and San Francisco in 2017. The big hit here was organizing a Solarize Northern Indiana group-buy to bring down both grid-connected and off-grid system costs. The average cost of an array under Solarize is $2.53 per watt for a basic 5-kW system, compared to about $2.80 per watt on the open market, according to a report by Solarize. (Note: Indiana halted all of this momentum at the state level by ending net metering completely.)

Collaboration Nation

SolSmart cities seeing the most success are often clustered and collaborative. In Illinois, the Metropolitan Mayors Caucus (MMC) advised 15 municipalities and counties and successfully led them all to Gold, Silver or Bronze SolSmart designations. As of the spring of 2018, this represented the largest regional cohort of designees in the country, tying Illinois with Colorado for the largest total number of SolSmart designations (18 total statewide).

Key to this process were bi-weekly phone calls with all communities and a Dropbox system arranged to share resources. This way everyone could get on the same page and share best practices while still tailoring programs to address local nuances. The reps from Schaumburg, Ill., rewrote zoning codes to create clear solar guidelines based on communication during the SolSmart designation phase that also met community goals and aesthetic standards.

Beach Park and Schaumburg achieved SolSmart Gold and Silver designations by making online solar permitting checklists available, allowing solar by-right in their zoning codes, training permitting and inspection staff on solar, and creating a streamlined process to approve solar permits more quickly. Schaumburg and Beach Park also received points for informing its residents of local incentives, solar installers and financing options.

Starting from square one

Right at the southern tip of Texas at the Mexican border is the city of Brownsville. The population is around 200,000 people in the low to moderate income bracket, emphasis on the low. The community was in such a dire spot and in need of a boost that federal organizations from FEMA to the EPA to the DOE were brought in to help.

“We looked holistically at what can we do to improve overall and become more resilient,” said David Licon Jr., an engineer for the City of Brownsville. “Solar was always an idea here. We thought we could help [the low-income community] out if we could get the ball rolling, dispel the illusions around solar and maybe help some of our citizens struggling with that high energy bill each month — make things more sustainable in the long haul.”

Brownsville could check no boxes on the early adopter SolSmart checklist — nothing in its zoning ordinance, and no real way to get through permitting — so they started with basics. The first step was getting on the same page with the three utility companies in town.

“We were fortunate our utilities came to the table to talk about it. That’s a must,” Licon said. “We can only make suggestions, so that relationship paid dividends to get everyone on the same page.”
This led to the utilities all putting standardized applications online while working toward a three- to five-day turnaround.

The city’s zoning ordinances now allowing “by right accessory use,” which limits the number of reviews from submission to installation. The city also created a permitting process for solar so that it goes through the appropriate reviews and isn’t a slow case-by-case process avoids run-around between city and utility company.

“The next thing as we progressed forward, is communication,” Licon said. “Once we told the public what we wanted to do we have had nothing but support. Once we put a sticker on our website asking if people wanted solar, we started getting calls the next day. We are pushing. We don’t want to just facilitate; we want our own skin in the game.”

In the past year, Brownsville has seen a 200 to 300 percent growth in solar installs compared to previous year. That’s from a small number, but it’s a start and it’s a direct result from city initiatives. Licon says the next focus is vetting the solar companies coming into the area. “What guidelines do we need to protect homeowners from fly-by-night contractors? If we get momentum we don’t want people coming in to scam.”

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— Solar Builder magazine