Orlando, Florida: Vaulting from Great to Gold

The city of Orlando, Florida is a SolSmart Gold designee that stands out for surpassing ‘solar-ready’ and aiming to make solar a linchpin of the community. Since 2007, the city has striven to become a national leader on sustainability, implementing dozens of initiatives that range from LEED certification for municipal buildings to incentives for residential solar installations. Many of these actions helped earn them points toward Bronze and Silver SolSmart designations. To bring the city to the next level, SolSmart began providing technical assistance to Orlando in early 2017 to help them make the leap to Gold.

According to Chris Castro, Orlando’s Director of Sustainability who led the city’s effort toward designation, SolSmart provided an excellent opportunity for Orlando to reduce “soft costs,” which can include cumbersome permitting and inspection processes that increase the time and expense it takes to go solar. These costs presented a major barrier to meeting the city’s ambitious sustainability goals. One of the major objectives Orlando hoped to achieve through SolSmart was to standardize and simplify solar requirements and procedures for the likes of contractors, installers, developers, inspectors, and residents. “The technical assistance that came with SolSmart was critical for us to look at how we can make these processes more ‘open to solar business’,” Castro said. To accomplish this goal, SolSmart’s technical experts reviewed the city’s permitting, planning and zoning, and other procedures and helped identify and strategize pathways to improve them. At the end of this process, Orlando was able to shave two to three days off the solar permitting process, helping decrease costs and maximize savings for the community.

Castro also praised the SolSmart team’s ability to adapt and strategize to meet Orlando’s unique needs. “They were insightful and helpful in following national standards but also local considerations and interests,” he said. Chris Walker, Senior Program Manager at The Solar Foundation who served as a SolSmart technical assistance provider, helped organize a solar workshop focused on Orlando and the greater Central Florida region. The workshop included a permitting and inspections training session for code officials and permitting staff, as well as presentations from city and utility officials and business leaders about challenges and opportunities for solar deployment. The group devoted special attention to strategies for expanding access and jobs to low-income communities, including policy, finance, and training considerations. The workshop also facilitated a group discussion where real-world examples of solutions to these barriers were examined and debated with the Orlando audience.

“The best practices we disseminate are based on real-world efforts from cities and counties across the country,” Walker said. “I think the workshop was a success because all the communities in attendance, representing the full spectrum of experience in solar programming, benefited from the content and each other’s contributions. That’s a hallmark of SolSmart in general: Wherever your starting point on that spectrum, we can assist you in making meaningful progress in improving your community’s solar market conditions.”

Collaboration and Leadership

Within a few months of participating in SolSmart, Orlando would join an elite cohort of communities nationwide that achieved the Gold designation for making it faster, easier, and more affordable for residents and businesses to go solar. Critical to Orlando’s success in attaining Gold were the partnerships with the community, municipal utility, and local private sector, recounted Brittany Sellers, the city’s Sustainability Project Manager who oversees clean energy and green building initiatives. To attain Gold designation, participants must earn at least 200 points across eight categories. Interestingly enough, 170 of Orlando’s total points were across three specific categories: Community Engagement, Utility Engagement, and Market Development/Finance. Orlando’s strong partnerships with their community, utility, and local private sector directly translated into actions such as OUCollective Solar, a program making it easier for residents to adopt solar due to a streamlined application process, group discounts, and affordable solar financing; the Solar & Energy Loan Fund (SELF), which encourages low-to-moderate income participation in community solar; and many others.

Jeff Benavides, a member of the Orlando solar business community, experienced this collaborative process firsthand. He gave input to the city during the SolSmart designation process relating to inspection training and the permitting process and was a presenter at the regional solar workshop. “Orlando’s success is definitely a result of being committed to leadership. They are always striving to improve,” said Benavides, who formerly worked at 15lightyears, an energy contracting company.

SolSmart’s Chris Walker attributed Orlando’s success to its leadership and the community’s active engagement in the city’s sustainability efforts. “The city of Orlando’s team is fantastic. Chris Castro is an incredible leader, who is intellectually curious and tireless in going out into the community to both teach and learn.”

The Orlando community is proud that a lot of its hard work is paying off. Since 2016, rooftop solar capacity has nearly doubled, Castro said. Vivint Solar and SolarCity (now Tesla) have set up regional offices in Orlando, and many other solar companies and businesses have moved to the Central Florida region. “It has a lot to do with the city’s finance, cooperative, and utility options, and many of the actions SolSmart assisted on,” Castro said.