America’s top 20 solar cities may surprise you

Source: Daniel Cusick, E&E reporter • Posted: Thursday, April 7, 2016

Twenty U.S. cities from the West Coast and Hawaii to New York-New Jersey, the Midwest and the Gulf Coast have emerged as urban leaders in solar power, according to data released this morning by the nonprofit group Environment America.

In an analysis of solar adoption by U.S. cities, the Environment America Research and Policy Center found that 64 cities account for 1,700 megawatts of photovoltaic solar capacity — almost as much solar energy as the entire country produced in 2010.

The leaders, or “Solar Stars,” include well-known solar hubs in California and the Southwest — Los Angeles, San Diego, Phoenix and San Jose, Calif. Solar expansion in these major markets, driven by high solar insolation but also by falling costs, favorable public policies and the proliferation of third-party solar leases, has helped urbanites become solar pioneers, according to the report.

Among the lesser-known leaders are Honolulu, an island city trying to wean itself from expensive energy imports; and Indianapolis, which claims two major solar farms at the Indianapolis International Airport and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Together, the two arrays have generation capacity of 26.5 MW, enough to power nearly 3,000 homes.

Honolulu ranked as the nation’s No. 1 city for per-capita solar capacity, with more than 400 watts per person, followed by Indianapolis (146 watts per capita) and San Jose (139 watts per capita). Large and more densely populated cities tended to rank lower in per-capita solar ratings, but experts note that economic and policy shifts may soon change that.

“Some places are starting to unlock community solar like in New York City, which ranks high for total capacity but still relatively low for solar per capita, so we might see an upward trend there in the future,” Bret Fanshaw, Environment America’s solar program coordinator, said in an email.

Government is a key player

Yet despite their variability in geography, population and solar intensity, Environment America found that the top 20 solar cities in the United States accounted for 6 percent of all solar capacity nationwide at the end of 2015.

And while some locations have natural advantages due to high solar intensity, most of the nation’s vanguard solar cities emerged not by accident, but by choice.

For example, New Orleans, ranked No. 12 for installed solar capacity and No. 8 for per-capita solar generation, has benefitted by consumer incentives and net-metering policies that allow solar owners to sell excess capacity back to local utilities.

“The cities that are adding solar power the fastest are those that have made it a policy priority,” said Kim Norman, policy analyst at the Frontier Group and report co-author. “This report shows that government is a key player in the effort to repower the U.S. with renewable energy.”

Other leaders, like San Antonio, have benefited from strong utility support for solar power. CPS Energy, San Antonio’s municipal utility, has been among the nation’s most aggressive adopters of solar.

The utility has contracts to purchase up to 450 MW of solar power from local development partner OCI Solar Power LLC, including from sites within the city. CPS also produces roughly 24 MW of solar generation through rooftop net metering, boosting its 2015 solar portfolio to 108 MW.

Last September, CPS launched a pilot program called SolarHost San Antonio, which offers residents a 3-cent-per-kilowatt-hour credit on their electricity bills if they allow the utility and partner PowerFin to install a free photovoltaic system on their rooftops.

Other large cities with emerging solar markets include Boston, Washington, Seattle and Atlanta, which recently announced it would install solar systems atop 28 municipal buildings. Those panels are expected to produce roughly 2 MW of electricity to power those buildings. Atlanta currently has about 3.6 MW of installed solar capacity, ranking it 38th among U.S. cities.

“These solar installations will not only enable the city to save on its electric bills, but they are also projected to reduce the city’s carbon dioxide emissions by over 33,000 metric tons and save 216 million gallons of water through the year 2030,” Environment America said.

Major U.S. cities identified as “solar beginners,” meaning their solar capacity is less than 5 watts per capita, include Houston, Detroit and Miami, the report found.

Graph of Top 20 Solar Cities by Total Installed Solar PV Capacity.

[+] Graph data courtesy of Environment America.