Ames takes another step toward solar energy

Source: By Austin Harrington, Staff Writer, Ames Tribune • Posted: Monday, June 27, 2016

In an effort to make the city friendlier to solar energy, Ames officials are beginning an application process to be included in a federal program that is designed to decrease the hurdles associated with solar energy.

SolSmart is funded by the U.S. Department of Energy to recognize communities that have taken key steps to address local barriers to solar energy and foster the growth of mature local solar markets, according to the program’s website. The Ames City Council approved the application process in early June after the Ames Progressive Alliance brought the initiative to the city’s attention.

Elizabeth Baird, member of the Ames Progressive Alliance, said that the main benefit of the program for the city of Ames will be a simplified process for people and businesses that wish to generate solar power.

“We are seeing a rise in solar applications right now,” Baird said. “However, there are still three different forms that you apply for because the electric department’s involved, the planning and housing’s involved and inspections is involved and they each have their own application.”

Philip Haddix, program director for the Solar Foundation, the company that oversees technical assistance for the SolSmart program, said the entire point of this program is to cut through that red tape.

“One major focus of the program is to address what are called ‘soft costs’ of going solar. So obviously there are costs for buying the equipment and things like that, but those equipment costs are quite cheap now but the major things that are keeping the cost of solar from really falling much more are these soft costs,” Haddix said.

According to Haddix, soft costs are associated with the administrative or business expenses which are often controlled by local government, such as permitting, planning and zoning.

“So we’re trying to really get at those through this program,” Haddix said.

During the application process, city officials will go through a checklist that shows what it has already accomplished in the way of simplifying the process for solar installation. When that is completed, the SolSmart team will evaluate the application and give the city a rating of bronze, silver or gold based on what has already been completed. They will also offer tips to help the city improve its score, Haddix said.

“Some of our criteria kind of involves them doing process and policy reviews of what they currently have going on and then direct them towards to the best practices that they can use to speed up these processes, streamline them, make them cheaper, not only for customers but also for the local government itself,” Haddix said.

By streamlining the process, government officials will likely have to spend less time working it, thereby saving the city time and money.

As part of the program, Haddix said his company offers free technical support and could even send in an advisor to help the city work through the process. At this point, the city has not decided to have an advisor come in, but officials are working toward completing the application to find out what work could be done to make the process easier and cheaper.

Don Kom, electric services director for Ames, said he is currently working on part of the application but other parts will need to be filled out by several different city departments.

“The application is fairly detailed,” Kom said.

According to Kom, the application asks questions about things such as the city’s mission statement for solar energy. Then, if the city does not have one in place, officials have to decide if they would like to create one before they complete the application or submit it without that statement being in place.

“It’s not something you fill out in a day,” Kom said.

Kom said he expects the various departments that need to be involved will all be working on their part of the application and it will probably be near completion in the next 45 days.

With curiosity over solar energy on the rise, Baird said she believes this, along with other efforts, will be a good step toward making solar power available to those who would like to use it.

“I can’t see anything that’s negative about it, it’s all good,” Baird said.