Cuyahoga County, Ohio Leads Regional Push to Go Solar

| By Zack Loehle, Interstate Renewable Energy Council

As one of the latest SolSmart Gold designees, Cuyahoga County, Ohio has undertaken an ambitious set of initiatives to expand solar energy in one of the largest metropolitan areas in the Midwest, which includes Cleveland and nearby suburbs. In the past five years, these efforts have led to increases in residential and municipal solar—with more to come online in the coming years.

The local push for solar energy goes back many years, starting with frustration on the part of local officials who felt that state-level policies didn’t go far enough. “Local government seemed to be the place to get stuff done,” says Mike Foley, Director of the Cuyahoga County Department of Sustainability.

Since then, the county has led several innovative projects that advance clean energy across the region. The Sustainability Department has coordinated the installation of solar panels on four government-owned buildings, producing almost 1.5 MWh  in solar energy. This is expected to save the county $1 million in energy costs over the next five years. 

In the working-class suburb of Brooklyn, Ohio, the Sustainability Department worked with municipal  officials to install 4 MW in solar panels on top of a 17-acre landfill, with a long-term lease on the property paid in a lump sum to the city government. Cuyahoga County will purchase the electricity to power 16 government buildings at an estimated $3 million in energy savings. The landfill array was awarded the Solar Builder Gold Project of the Year in 2018.

To encourage residential solar use, the County has partnered with nonprofit Solar United Neighbors on a solar co-op which encourages residents to go solar while saving up to 20% of the cost. Since the partnership began in 2017, more than 250 residents have added solar to their homes through the co-op, adding over 500 kW in total and saving approximately 20% on the cost of solar panel installations. 

Manufacturing has played a major role in shaping Cuyahoga County, and continues to support many livelihoods today. For local factories, power outages are a major financial risk as the weather grows more unpredictable in the face of climate change. To help shore up resilience, the Sustainability Department is planning  to create a series of solar-powered microgrids, focused initially around the county’s manufacturing hubs. While still in the early planning stages, these microgrids will serve as a backup power system if the electricity grid fails.

With an eye toward the future, the Sustainability Department hopes to create a county-owned electric utility that builds on the framework set up with the four government installations. County officials say they are encouraged that solar is becoming more visible as a result of their efforts. “Our goal was to try to normalize solar so it didn’t seem like this funny, exotic thing,” Foley says. 

The SolSmart designation process helped Cuyahoga County identify its solar achievements and put them in context with other communities. “It helped us frame all the stuff we’ve done,” Foley adds. Any city, county, or regional organization across the U.S. can achieve SolSmart designation. To get started, contact us here, and begin your own path toward a cleaner energy future.