Located in the Sonoran Desert of Southern Arizona, Pima County is host to 350 days of sunshine annually. Given its geography and climate, Pima County has capitalized on the sun as a natural asset and has emerged as a national leader in advancing solar energy. The steps that the county has taken to incorporate solar—including committing to local green building standards, creating incentive zones for solar and streamlining the solar inspection processes—led to the county being awarded the SolSmart Gold designation in July 2017.
LEADING BY A GREEN EXAMPLE
Solidifying its commitment to boost more energy efficient and sustainable development, Pima County adopted a sustainability resolution in 2007 and established a Green Building Program within its Department of Development Services. As a part of this program, the county adopted the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC)’s LEED Silver certification as the minimum standard for all new public buildings, which calls for buildings to use at least 10 percent less energy than the USGBC baseline and awards the use of renewable energy. Currently, there are 208 LEED certified buildings in Pima County.
Pima County also works with a network of “Green Rater” partners to directly verify single and multi-family residences for the LEED for Homes designation, which is a voluntary third party certification system of the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) that promotes the design and construction of energy and water efficient homes. In fact, Pima County is the only government jurisdiction selected by the USGBC to have this role and works to certify residences throughout Arizona, New Mexico, and West Texas. Recognizing the natural potential of solar energy to play a prominent role in energy efficient building development in Pima County given its geography, the county launched a Solar One-Stop webpage as a clearinghouse of essential solar information. Used by residents, business owners and solar developers and installers, the site contains a wide variety of key resources including introductory information on solar technology, in addition to resources about solar financing, installation steps and upcoming events.
PLANNING FOR A SOLAR FUTURE
In addition to providing comprehensive educational resources on solar, Pima County is now planning for future development of large-scale solar projects by targeting this development to concentrated areas throughout the county. Known as the Renewable Energy Incentive Districts (REIDs), these districts represent thousands of acres of vacant or underutilized properties suitable for solar facilities. These REIDs can be located through a user-friendly, interactive GIS map feature developed by the county. In an effort to encourage development to the REIDs, Pima County also offers incentives for solar facilities often including reduced or waived regulations and fees, as well as an expedited review time for development plan submittals. The solar incentive districts serve as a ‘win-win’ strategy for the county as it encourages large investments in solar, while reducing contested land use issues by funneling development to just a few properly-suited locations.
Pima County is geographically large, covering a land area roughly the size of New Hampshire (over 9,000 square miles) with more than a third of the county population living out in unincorporated areas of the county. Given these dynamics, providing traditional county building permits and inspections in a timely and cost-effective manner is often a challenge. This is especially the case for smaller inspection projects, such as solar PV systems. Furthermore, a 2013 economic impact review by Pima County and the Southern Arizona regional economic development agency Sun Corridor, Inc., determined that expediting development approval processes by one month equated to an average annual economic impact of $25 million to the local economy.
The Pima County Development Services Department, therefore, set out to find an innovative way to make the building inspection process more efficient. Enter the Pima County Remote Inspections Project. Now, using the popular, free video program Skype, contractors and homeowners can now connect with county building inspectors virtually and receive same-day approval on projects. Pima County is now able to review an average of 16 inspections per day and as of February 2017, 20% of all inspections by the department utilized the remote inspections program, indicating the ease and growing popularity of this program. Further, the county notes the remote inspections process has become particularly popular with solar PV system installers.
As a testament to the innovative vision of this program to increase local government efficiency, the Remote Inspection Project was named a 2017 NACo Achievement Award winner and including as one of the ‘100 Brilliant Ideas at Work’—the presidential initiative of NACo President Bryan Deslodge.
This case study originally appeared in the NACo publication “Thinking SolSmart: County Strategies for Advancing Solar Deployment.“