Solar America Cities 2.0: News from the 2nd Annual Meeting in San Antonio

Last year, some 125 attended the first Solar America Cities Annual Meeting in Tucson to share their experiences solarizing their cities. This year, some 165+ met in San Antonio for Solar America Cities 2.0.

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) awarded US $200K to13 Solar America Cities in June 2007, and an additional 12 cities in March 2008 to remove market barriers to solar and to encourage adoption of solar energy technologies at the local level. The goal is for these innovative approaches to serve as a model for cities around the nation.

“It’s a family reunion,” said Tom Kimbis, Market Transformation Director, Solar Energy Technologies Program/DOE, as he looked out at the gathering of solar advocates at the 2nd Annual Solar America Cities meeting.

“We’ve got perfect attendance,” said Charlie Hemmeline, DOE’s Solar Energy Technologies Program.

San Antonio, a Solar America city, is home to the largest (currently) installed solar energy project in Texas at the historic Pearl Brewery. The $1.35 million project includes the installation of a 200 kilowatt photovoltaic array on a 67,000-square foot office, retail and residential building. Bill Sinkin, founder of Solar San Antonio and long-time community activist, helped persuade San Antonio to become a solar city.

It was, in fact, a very happy family reunion. The attendees were upbeat, optimistic, cheerful and enthusiastic. There were hugs and high-fives all around, and non-stop conversations over coffee and pretzels about individual and collective successes.

“The true value of Solar America Cities is not the dollar amount of the grant, but the incredible resource for information,” said Austin Energy’s Tim Harvey.

For two and a half days, the cities shared their stories, their successes and challenges over a wide range of issues, like training a solar workforce, developing effective outreach and marketing strategies, understanding codes and standards, streamlining the often complicated and time-consuming permitting practices, implementing innovative financing mechanisms and mapping tools, working with local utilities on complex net metering and interconnection issues.

It was obvious that lots of progress has occurred since Tucson.

“We feel like we’re reaching our goal of moving from start-up to an independent entity,” said Tasha Wright, City of Santa Rosa.

There’s Berkeley’s FIRST program, providing property owners an opportunity to borrow money from the City’s Sustainable Energy Financing District to install solar PV and allow the cost to be repaid over 20 years through an annual special tax on their property tax bill.

And San Francisco’s solar mapping tool, developed by the San Francisco Department of the Environment and CH2M HILL, to promote greater public awareness about solar potential in San Francisco and to encourage greater solar usage among commercial and residential building owners. By typing in an address, a consumer will get an estimate of the rooftop’s solar PV potential, estimated annual system output and associated energy savings, and estimated annual CO2 emissions mitigated. The ‘other links’ tab provides other on-line resources for estimating the cost (before and after state and federal incentives) of installing a solar PV system, finding a solar installer, and getting more detailed information.

New Orleans’ CleanTech Solar Training Program, working with the Louisiana Community and Technical College System, offers solar energy installation training classes based on NABCEP’s PV Entry Level Certificate of Knowledge program. “We’ve trained 160 since June 2008” said New Orleans’ Stephen Shelton.

A roundtable discussion with six solar-savvy mayors from cities like Pittsburgh and Ann Arbor was comfortably relaxed, like these guys (and gal) have done this before. This is a group of engaged, tech-smart decision makers, already well-known players in the burgeoning green economy panorama.

“We’ know we’ve got to make solar part of a continuing city program,” said Mayor John Hieftje from Ann Arbor.

“It’s smart to have public policies around solar,” said Austin’s Mayor Will Wynn.

“In many ways, the community is out in front of us (the county) pushing us to go farther and faster,” said Santa Rosa’s Mayor, Susan Gorin.

In addition to the $200K seed funding from DOE to each of the 25 Solar America Cities, technical support from DOE’s Tiger Teams adds immeasurable value to the cities. Made up of personnel from Sandia National Laboratories, the National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL), the Florida Solar Energy Center, New Mexico State University, and private sector partner CH2M Hill, these tacticians spread out and help cities in all sorts of ways, like building websites for idea exchange, identifying optimal locations for solar installations, producing policy analyses, creating compelling outreach and marketing tools.

The cities LOVE their Tiger Team lead.

“It’s a joy to work with the best and the brightest at NREL and Sandia,” said Austin Energy’s Leslie Libby. I feel free to pick up the phone or send an email whenever I need some help.”

“Yay, Jason Coughlin, the best Financial Guru Tiger!,” said Andrea Luecke, City of Milwaukee.

It’s a mutual admiration society.

Curt Maxey, Tiger Team lead for the City of Knoxville, feels its reputation as a group of over-achievers is well-deserved. “Madeleine (Weil) and her team are absolutely delightful to work with. The energy and responsiveness that the Knoxville team has shown has really made it an honor to participate with them.”

The IREC team was on the agenda in several places: Jane Weissman on training a solar workforce; Larry Sherwood moderated the session on codes & standards; Kevin Fox and Rusty Haynes talking about new developments in net metering and interconnection.

“It was exciting to learn more about the great projects the Solar America Cities are rolling out,” said Fox. “However, it was even more exciting to gain insight into work the cities are doing to loosen regulatory barriers that stand in the way of projects for which the cities are not directly involved.”

As if the positive news from the cities wasn’t enough cause for celebration, the knowledge that more money is in the queue for cities and states’ renewable energy activities, especially at this time of economic frailty, ramps the excitement meter up by several orders of magnitude.

Call me skeptical when bureaucrats say, “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.” But Charlie Hemmeline had the opportunity to make a believer out of me. His synopsis of the stimulus package and increased funding for EERE activities had me at $16.8B.

His bullet points were stunning:

EERE – $16.8 billion total

1) $2.5 B for Applied R&D

  • a. $800 million for Biomass
  • b. $400 million for Geothermal
  • c. $400 million for Transportation Electrification
  • d. $300 million for Alternative Fueled-Vehicles Pilot Grant Program
  • e. $50 million for Information and Communications technology

2) $2 B for Advanced Battery Manufacturing Grants

3) Weatherization & Intergovernmental $ 11.6 B

  • a. Weatherization Assistance $ 5.0 B
  • b. State Energy Program $ 3.1 B
  • c. EE Conservation Block Grant $ 2.8 B
  • d. Grant Competitive Solicitation $ 400 M
  • e. Appliance Rebate Program $ 300 M

I was speechless. I think I uttered ‘wow.’

“With a significant amount of new funding from the federal government, and the collaboration with all cities,” Charlie said, “next year’s Solar America Cities annual meeting should be remarkable.”

No kidding.

“I like being the bearer of good tidings; it’s so rare,” said Charlie.

There’s already excitement about 2010. I overheard a couple of conversations about potential venues for next year’s meeting.

“I’m casting my vote for Sonoma,” said Milwaukee’s Andrea Luecke. ” Wine, cheese, hills, cows…mmm.”

Is it 2010 yet?

Wherever it ends up, Kimbis said that next year’s SAC meeting will present three awards to cities that have:

  • –the most significant solar project;
  • –the most creative solar activities; and
  • –the most progress toward solar sustainability.

No problem for the 25 cities to compete for the accolades. I worry more for the judges who must choose the winners.

The reach of the SAC initiative, as a model for other cities to emulate, is widespread. This must be enormously satisfying.

“We’ve become a magnet for all things solar in our community,” said Marty Roberts, Solar Sonoma.

“SAC helped me realize that for cities like Ann Arbor, Pittsburgh, and Milwaukee, it’s not how many megawatts are in the pipeline, but how many people have become solar advocates because of the program,” said Luecke.

Solar San Antonio’s Bill Sinkin, who will celebrate his 96th birthday in May, was glowing. “Isn’t this wonderful?”

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