Solsmart Brings Solar Recognition and Services to SE Ohio

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By Mathew Roberts, Info and Outreach Director, UpGrade Ohio

Aug 16, 2017

Last year the solar industry created jobs 17 times faster than the overall U.S. economy, with more than 260,000 workers nationwide and over 5,800 jobs in Ohio. Solar development employs more than twice as many as the coal industry and is one of the primary drivers of American job growth today.

The world is building renewable power – solar, wind, biomass, geothermal and small hydropower – at lower costs than ever before, and no amount of political chicanery will stop the momentum.

Ohio already has enough solar installed to power more than 14,000 homes, but still ranks far below top solar states such as California, North Carolina and Arizona. Throughout Ohio, including in the Appalachia region, we need much more rapid solar growth to transition the country, and the world, to clean, green power.

The good news is that city and county governments, quite apart from federal or state action, have a tremendous opportunity to promote solar development in their areas. Local action can make a huge dent in the cost of solar and increase its availability to homes and businesses.

In places where solar deployment has everything working against it (where coal remains king, for example), communities could use an extra hand. That’s why the U.S. Department of Energy created the SolSmart program – a national designation program designed to recognize communities that have taken key steps to address local barriers to solar energy and foster the growth of strong local solar markets.

For the next six months, the Southeast Ohio Public Energy Council and UpGrade Ohio will work together to identify ways to lower the “soft costs” of solar development. These are non-hardware costs that can represent up to two-thirds of the cost of an installed residential system. This will take place in four SOPEC communities: Athens, Amesville, Somerset, and all unincorporated areas of Athens County.

Granted to SOPEC, with UpGrade Ohio as the contracting partner, the program will work to highlight how communities can work to be “open for solar business,” while creating a model that can act as a guide in the goal of lowering soft costs and driving activity of solar deployment in rural Ohio.

According to UpGrade Ohio’s executive director, Sarah Conley-Ballew, “serving as a Solsmart Advisor enables our local governments to access national resources in order to make smart decisions about solar development in our region. Once designated, these pioneering communities can lead by example, setting a strong precedent for smart solar growth in southeast Ohio.”

As defined by the SolSmart program, the soft costs of solar can drop with improvements made to local code and zoning, permitting and processes, solar financing, customer acquisition and installation labor. Most local governments don’t have time to dedicate resources to these goals, but with the SolSmart, SOPEC can provide this service at no cost to the communities it works with now and hopefully in the future.

“The SolSmart Advisor program is a smart strategy for advancing SOPEC’s mission and improving the value of solar investments in our local energy economy,” noted Eddie Smith, SOPEC’s executive director, “SOPEC is excited to partner with the Solar Foundation and UpGrade Ohio to offer the SolSmart Advisor program in Southeast Ohio. We are truly grateful to have such great partners in Washington who can fund these programs in SOPEC’s footprint, and such great local partners who can execute them.”

Consisting of three levels of designation – Bronze, Silver and Gold – SOPEC’s goal for the remainder of 2017 is to help the four communities in this cohort reach at least Silver designation.

What’s more important, perhaps, than helping these communities achieve solar recognition is the opportunity to expand the solar conversation within the halls of rural local government. At its best, the SOPEC SolSmart program will allow elected officials to talk about lessons learned in this process and can take it to emerging coalition of government (COG) groups such as the Mayor’s Partnership for Progress – a consortium of mayors and city managers from 13 counties (over 60 communities) in southern and southeast Ohio.

As SOPEC and UpGrade Ohio work together in the coming months, they hope that a deeper look will unlock the potential of local solar economies that can help attract new businesses panel-by-panel, providing long-term jobs and other economic development benefits to underserved regions.

People are starting to make the link between energy choices and the rapidly changing climate. They’re increasingly aware of how individual choices spread much further than what is used in one’s home or business – every energy choice has an impact. The best part is that we can make these energy choices work better for us by spurring economic activity and keeping local dollars circulating in local communities. There’s more opportunity than ever for change that is built on foundations of conservation, community, and energy innovation – this column is dedicated to that movement.