SolSmart is a national program designed to recognize cities, counties, towns, and regional organizations that are encouraging solar energy growth at the local level. It is led by the Interstate Renewable Energy Council (IREC), the International City/County Management Association (ICMA), and a team of national solar experts from our partner organizations. SolSmart is funded by the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Energy Technologies Office.
The SolSmart program first launched in 2016. Since then, nearly 500 local governments have achieved designation as SolSmart Gold, Silver, or Bronze. In 2023, the program announced a new Platinum designation that recognizes local governments for cutting-edge achievements in the deployment of solar energy.
Through SolSmart, local governments receive no-cost technical assistance from a team of national experts in solar energy and local government. This technical assistance is designed to help communities meet the SolSmart Criteria—a set of national best practices to help encourage solar energy growth in their jurisdictions. Communities that meet sufficient criteria receive SolSmart designation.
All municipalities, counties, and regional organizations in the United States are eligible to participate in SolSmart and receive no-cost technical assistance to achieve designation. Current SolSmart designees include nearly 500 local governments in 43 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Local governments are encouraged to begin the process by contacting the SolSmart team.
Local governments that are interested in pursuing SolSmart designation should begin by contacting our team. A technical assistance provider will follow up with you to answer any questions you have about the program and get you started. If you are not a local government employee but think your community could benefit from SolSmart, simply get in touch with us using the same contact form and we will follow up.
There are no fees or other such costs associated with SolSmart. All local governments and regional organizations in the United States are eligible to receive technical assistance free of charge. However, all communities will need to spend time providing documentation that they have met the requirements for designation. Local government staff dedicate a certain amount of time to working with our technical assistance team and implementing its recommendations.
Absolutely! We understand that local governments have many priorities and competing demands on their time. SolSmart is committed to helping all jurisdictions expand solar energy use, including those with limited resources or staff. Upon joining the program, the SolSmart technical assistance team will work with the local government to identify goals and set an achievable plan for designation. In some cases, this could include working with regional organizations in the area that can help local governments pool resources to achieve common goals.
SolSmart does not offer funding to local governments. Instead, the program provides expert technical assistance to help communities encourage solar energy growth and achieve designation. Often, funding opportunities can be available from federal, state, or other sources. The technical assistance team can work with a community to identify funding sources that help them achieve their solar energy goals.
The SolSmart program does not directly help local governments install solar energy. Instead, it helps communities adopt national best practices that encourage more solar installations on residences, local businesses, or both. In addition, SolSmart encourages communities to install solar panels on local government facilities; build solar panels on underutilized land; or pursue community solar projects that will increase local access to solar energy. All such activities will help local governments earn points toward SolSmart designation.
Working with the SolSmart technical assistance team, local governments meet national best practices that are proven ways to encourage solar energy growth. The local governments review their programs and practices and remove unintended barriers that could stand in the way of solar development. They partner with community members to meet local needs and adopt an equitable approach to solar energy expansion.
Examples of what local governments achieve by meeting the SolSmart criteria include:
- Reducing the time it takes to obtain a solar permit, saving time and money for residents looking to go solar.
- Ensuring that local zoning requirements don’t place unnecessary restrictions on solar installation.
- Organizing a group purchase campaign, helping more residents to go solar at a lower cost.
- Reducing barriers to solar energy use for renters, multifamily buildings, or low-income neighborhoods.
- Installing solar panels, battery storage, and microgrids at government facilities.
Solar soft costs are the non-hardware, balance of system costs associated with solar energy systems. They include costs associated with:
- Planning and zoning
- Permitting, interconnection, and inspection
- Customer acquisition
- Installation labor
A key objective of the SolSmart program is to reduce solar soft costs, which currently represent as much as 64% of the total installed residential system price. Local governments can make a key difference in reducing these costs, which in turn will increase solar energy growth in their jurisdictions. To learn more about the above categories and how they increase costs, please visit the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy’s website.
SolSmart Designation Process
The SolSmart criteria are based on established best practices that encourage the growth of solar energy at the local level, as determined by an advisory committee of experts in solar energy and local government.
There are currently three pathways to SolSmart designation. Local governments that control permitting, inspection, planning, and zoning use the Standard Designation Criteria. The local governments that do not control permitting and/or inspection use the Modified/County Designation Criteria. This option is appropriate for certain counties that do not have control over one or both of those processes. Multi-jurisdictional organizations such as regional councils or councils of government use the Regional Organization Designation Criteria.
The SolSmart Standard Criteria pathway is currently organized into five categories: Permitting and Inspection, Planning and Zoning, Government Operations, Community Engagement, and Market Development. Within each category are specific actions that municipalities, counties, and regional organizations can take to encourage local solar energy use.
Some of the criteria are prerequisites for earning designation, while others are elective. Each has a corresponding point level. Upon meeting the prerequisites and reaching a sufficient number of points in each category, a community qualifies for SolSmart designation. This flexible process allows a local government to select a plan that is best tailored to their community.
Learn more about the SolSmart criteria by visiting the Path to Designation page on our website. Download the SolSmart Program guide for a complete list of the criteria, along with resources and templates for meeting them.
The first step for any local government or regional organization interested in pursuing SolSmart designation is to connect with one of our technical assistance providers through a consultation call. To set up a call, simply fill out the contact form on our website. During this call, our technical assistance providers will describe the program and process, learn about a community’s solar goals, and identify the applicable SolSmart Designation Criteria for the participant.
Once the community decides to pursue SolSmart designation, they need to complete a solar statement and return it to a technical assistance provider. The solar statement demonstrates a commitment to work with the SolSmart team and achieve designation.
The participant then works with the technical assistance provider to conduct a baseline assessment of the community’s solar processes. This analysis helps determine how close the community is to designation and identifies what technical assistance pathway will achieve designation. After the baseline assessment, with guidance from the SolSmart team, the participant should complete any prerequisite criteria needed to achieve designation. Once the prerequisites are satisified, the participant may need to complete additional criteria to be ready to submit for designation. In this case, the criteria chosen should balance recommendations from the SolSmart team and criteria of interest to the participant.
Once the necessary credits are completed, the participant is ready to submit for designation review. The technical assistance provider can assist with the submission process through SolSmart’s website. The submission is reviewed by the Designation Program Administrator within 10 business days and the local government is notified of their designation by email.
There is no specific timeline for communities working toward achieving designation. It will depend on each community’s starting point, staff availability, and goals. SolSmart experts will design personalized action plans for communities that outline a path to designation.
A SolSmart designation recognizes a local government or regional organization as a solar energy leader. It is a point of pride for local officials and a signal that a community is “open for solar business.” This designation helps attract new businesses to the community, creating new jobs and spurring economic growth. Meanwhile, more local homes and businesses will have access to a clean, affordable energy source.
By expanding solar energy use at the local level, communities enjoy many benefits, including reduced carbon emissions and other pollution; economic development opportunities; increasing community health and welfare; and the potential for expanded tax revenue, to name just a few.
The SolSmart program recognizes designees on the program website, social media, and related public forums. Each community also receives a SolSmart plaque to commemorate their designation. Local governments are frequently recognized in the media following their designation, and they often hold in-person or virtual events to celebrate their achievements.
In 2023, SolSmart added a new Platinum designation to recognize local governments and regional organizations with exceptional solar energy achievements. To receive Platinum designation, participants following the Standard Pathway must fulfill prerequisites that include automated approval for residential solar permits; post metrics related to solar PV permits and inspections; work with community-based organizations to define solar equity goals; and establish partnerships with community organizations serving disadvantaged communities. They must also fulfill additional elective criteria totaling 350 points (compared to 200 points for Gold, 100 points for Silver, and 60 points for Bronze). SolSmart’s technical assistance team is available to help existing Gold, Silver, and Bronze designees that are interested in “leveling up” to Platinum.
Local governments that complete 60% or more of the points in a particular SolSmart Criteria category (for example, Permitting and Inspection) will be eligible for a special recognition award. The awards offer additional recognition that the community has excelled in a particular area.
SolSmart Technical Assistance
Upon joining the SolSmart program, local governments and regional organizations will work with the technical assistance provider to determine if they meet the requirements for designation. The initial review will also determine at which level a community would qualify for designation. If, upon review, the participant does not meet the requirements for SolSmart designation, they will be eligible for technical assistance. The personalized technical assistance offered through the SolSmart program is designed to help all interested communities improve their solar markets and achieve SolSmart designation. A community may also receive technical assistance to achieve a higher level of designation.
Whether leveling up to a higher level of designation or joining the program for the first time, contact our team today to get started on technical assistance. Our technical assistance providers will work with you to identify goals and set an achievable plan for designation.
Communities that commit to pursuing SolSmart designation will be eligible for no-cost technical assistance from national solar experts. While the technical assistance is provided at no cost, communities must dedicate staff time to work with SolSmart experts to achieve program criteria to progress toward designation. The technical assistance program is your chance to get one-on-one feedback from an expert on solar energy and local government. Technical assistance takes many forms, from one-on-one virtual meetings, to trainings, to feedback on local processes.