Chattanooga Collaboration Delivers SolSmart Gold

Once known for its smokestacks and steel mills, Chattanooga, Tennessee, has worked hard to reinvent itself as a renaissance city in terms of climate and air quality over the last several decades. Chattanooga is designated SolSmart Gold for the community’s commitment to making it faster, simpler, and more transparent for residents and businesses to go solar.

In 1969, Chattanooga received national attention after being ranked as a city with some of the worst air quality in the country due to steel production. Even as the steel industry collapsed, Chattanooga faced other environmental problems with highly contaminated waterways. Today, Chattanooga is known for winning Outside Magazine’s “Best Town Ever” designation multiple times for its destination as a mecca of outdoor activities in the Southeast United States. Neither of these recognitions could have occurred had Chattanooga not addressed its air and water quality issues head on. Clean energy can now be added to the list of solutions that Chattanooga has employed to keep itself as a global destination for outdoor activities.

Chattanooga is not a stranger to the Department of Energy’s (DOE) Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Office initiative programs, as it has participated in the Better Buildings challenge and the Low-Income Clean Energy Accelerator. When Erik Schmidt, Director of Office of Sustainability for Mayor Andy Berke, learned about the SolSmart initiative funded by DOE to help encourage communities across the U.S. to make it easier to go solar, it was clear that Chattanooga should apply to the program. Schmidt enlisted help from the city’s Land Development Office to work toward earning SolSmart designation. The Land Development Office helped update the website and permit forms to make finding solar resources easier, as well as the commitment to improve turnaround time for permits, while Chattanooga-Hamilton County Regional Planning Agency focused on zoning issues.

To harness all the help from the technical assistance (TA) provider that is assigned to a community when applying to SolSmart, Schmidt and the Land Development Office reviewed the criteria for the program to evaluate what was already being done and to identify the criteria that still needed to be worked on. The results of the evaluation were provided to Philip Kreycik, TA provider from Cadmus group, who was able to provide assistance immediately because the areas where help was needed had already been identified.

“Philip was awesome! He was patient, consistent, detail oriented, and helped to move the community as fast as possible. He was great.” — Erik Schmidt, Director of Sustainability, on the work of Philip Kreycik, SolSmart technical assistance provider.

To fulfill the criteria for SolSmart, Chattanooga began by posting a letter of commitment to its website. It then focused on improving zoning and permit language, rewriting a portion of the zoning code that was approved Fall of 2018 to prevent prohibitive language from keeping solar as an accessory structure. The city made the process of obtaining solar energy less prohibitive and committed to a three-day turnaround time for solar permit applications. Cross-training on SolSmart also became common practice and city staff attended solar training on permitting and inspection.

The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), a quasi-federal utility company, was a key player that collaborated to streamline the process of making solar energy more accessible for residents and businesses. Through a collaboration between Chattanooga’s municipal electric distributor, the Electric Power Board (EPB), and TVA, the community solar project called Solar Share was designed to lower entry barriers to participating in solar power generation.

Solar Share is a 1.4-megawatt solar array located in the center part of the town that is composed of 4,408 solar panels and produces about 2 million kWh per year. Solar Share leases out panels to residents who want solar energy at $5 per panel, and customers receive a credit on their bill for the amount of power generated by the number of panels they lease.

Effects of SolSmart

After participating and earning recognition, the community responded positively to the news that Chattanooga was now designated SolSmart. The city first was awarded a SolSmart Bronze designation in December 2017 and in less than four months, achieved Gold designation. When the city shared the news about the designation via social media and traditional media outlets, the response from residents affirmed the City’s efforts to advance the adoption of solar power for their community. The momentum that resulted from SolSmart provided the opportunity to create a line item of $4.5 million in the capital budget for the current and next fiscal year.

In order to secure the funding, the city submitted a budget request to construct a solar array that could generate up to three megawatts of energy at the wastewater treatment plant. This project will provide resiliency for base load operations at the plant during sunlit hours, and may provide up to 30-50% of the plant’s energy demand when generating at full capacity. This new project will serve as a compliment to one of Chattanooga’s most impressive renewable energy projects. The Chattanooga Metropolitan Airport Authority, which operates the City’s municipal airport, is currently in the process of completing the third phase of a 3 megawatt solar array. When complete, the solar array will completely offset the airport’s energy demand, making it the first airport in the United States to be 100 percent powered by renewable energy.

Lessons from Chattanooga

While there were still areas of improvement, by achieving SolSmart Gold designation, it affirmed that obtaining and supporting clean energy sources was something the community strongly supported. SolSmart allowed Chattanooga and its stakeholders to devise and put into operation a pathway to make solar energy more accessible for residents and businesses. For Chattanooga, understanding its zoning regulations was crucial to identifying what language needed to be changed to facilitate solar installations. It also engaged solar vendors to identify the hurdles vendors faced when completing a solar permitting application. This feedback was then incorporated in the solutions to create a permitting path for vendors that was more streamlined and easier to execute, encouraging their businesses in the community.

A special strength in Chattanooga’s SolSmart strategy was the collaboration between the TVA and EPB. By partnering to bring a community solar share project to the community, TVA and EPB are able  to deliver better service to their customers through data sharing and smart grid optimization. Further, this same partnership provided the foundation to build one of the country’s first all-electric vehicle car-share programs, for which the energy demand is completely offset with modular solar installations.

Throughout, Chattanooga, EPB and TVA have worked hard to help the community and its residents understand the benefits of the programs and improvements in processes they have worked to improve. By taking the steps to make things easier for residents and businesses to access solar energy, as well as being a leader in pairing solar installations with critical assets like the airport and wastewater treatment facility, it is believed that nearby and surrounding communities will begin to follow suit.