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Oklahoma City Prepares for a Bright Solar Future

In 2017, Oklahoma City only issued one permit for residential solar. Yet local officials saw untapped potential for solar energy in Oklahoma’s largest metro area, and they worked with SolSmart to achieve Bronze designation that year as a stepping stone to future growth.

Their predictions were well founded: Recent years have seen a surge of interest in solar from Oklahoma City residents. The city issued 54 residential electrical permits for solar in 2019, 160 in 2020, and 154 so far in 2021. “We want people to have access to energy choice wherever they may live in our city,” says T.O. Bowman, Program Planner in the Office of Sustainability.

Oklahoma City was built in part on oil exploration, and coal and gas still provide more than 90 percent of its power needs. However, it ranks among the top 10 U.S. cities with the highest solar potential and 96 percent of its buildings are solar-viable, according to Google’s Project Sunroof. Rapidly declining costs have made solar an attractive prospect for homes and businesses alike, and in 2020 Oklahoma saw a record amount of residential solar installed statewide.

Changes in state policy have been an important driver for this growth. The state attorney general issued an opinion in 2018 which found it is legal to use power purchase agreements (PPAs) to pay for distributed generation projects, such as rooftop solar. This opened the door for residents to access easy financing options for residential solar systems. Then in 2019, the Oklahoma Corporation Commission adopted net metering, which allows solar customers to receive compensation for energy they send back to the grid.

More recently, two historic extreme weather events have brought new urgency to conversations about energy resilience. In October 2020, a major ice storm cut off power to many residents for a long period at an estimated cost of $174 million. This was followed in February of this year by a winter storm that led to sub-zero temperatures in Oklahoma, Texas, and other neighboring states. The cost of natural gas rose from a typical average of $3-4 per dekatherm to around $95 to $100, city officials say.

As a result, while Oklahoma historically enjoyed the fourth lowest electricity prices in the country, these emergencies are likely to shift the long-term outlook and change local assumptions about energy needs. “We expect this to significantly change the economics of electricity in Oklahoma,” says Ryan Baker, Senior Planner at the Office of Sustainability.

The city has already created a framework for these discussions with the adaptokc sustainability plan published in 2020. This plan was described as a first-of-its-kind document to “strengthen our community in the face of economic, environmental, and social challenges,” with solar energy an integral part of these plans. The report notes that solar installations could be a major job opportunity for the state, and the solar industry already supports over 900 Oklahoma jobs.

The city is now taking a broad look at its planning, zoning, and development code to lay out a clear pathway for solar energy. Any changes to the code may take a year or two longer, as they will likely be one part of a more comprehensive zoning update now underway. The goal, however, is to make sure the planning and zoning process won’t create unnecessary roadblocks to local solar energy projects. The current zoning code does not prohibit solar development, but in most cases it doesn’t explicitly mention it either, Bowman says.

For a city that had little experience with solar as of a few years ago, the SolSmart designation process helped lay the foundation. “SolSmart was definitely the way that we got our structure in place for looking at the way our city interacts with solar,” Bowman says. “It gave us a new lens for looking at our own regulations, and it gave us a reason to have a conversation.”

Another advantage of SolSmart was that it allowed the city to understand best practices adopted by other local governments, Bowman adds. “The first thing we usually get asked by a city council or planning commission is, what are other cities doing? And if we can point to a resource that’s been aggregated from other cities and lessons they’ve learned, that’s certainly helpful to have in our back pocket.”

Oklahoma City is so far the only community in the state to achieve SolSmart designation, but there is plenty of opportunity for others to join them. Any municipality, county, or regional organization interested in obtaining no-cost technical assistance from SolSmart can contact us today.

Photo Credit: Solar Creations installed 248 panels on the Floor Trader building Oklahoma City. Owens Service Electric was the electrical contractor on the project.