Sarasota County, Florida: Expanding Clean Energy So the Whole Community Can Benefit

In Sarasota County, Florida, local authorities know that sustainability goes hand in hand with improving people’s lives. That’s why the county is focused on expanding clean energy options in ways that benefit everyone, including low-income residents who face the burden of high energy costs, and local nonprofits that help the community thrive.

Recently, this county of 430,000 residents achieved SolSmart Silver designation as the latest step in making clean energy accessible and widespread. As a SolSmart designee, the county scored high not only in the permitting, planning, and zoning categories (which help streamline the process for solar projects), but also for community engagement and training events that help increase local interest in solar.

This commitment to outreach and education in Sarasota County is longstanding. The county has provided energy education since 2012, and has recently recruited “energy coaches” to help residents save money by improving energy and water efficiency in their homes. The county has found that 42% of households are paying over 30% of their income in energy costs, and this energy burden is especially acute for low-income residents. For that reason, the county works with the Sarasota Housing Authority to provide energy savings tips for public housing tenants. “We install devices and provide educational sessions, so they can help save money on their utilities and save the environment at the same time,” says Sara Kane, the county’s sustainability manager.

In another innovative program, the county is collaborating with the City of Sarasota and several foundations on Partners for Green Places, which funds energy and water efficiency upgrades at local nonprofits. This program — which is now being expanded to include solar energy — helps nonprofit organizations lower energy costs and invest new resources into their mission. The participating nonprofits provide vital community services, including support for children and families and local environmental protection.

The county’s engagement with SolSmart is part of an effort to increase its focus on solar energy, after putting an emphasis on energy efficiency in some of its earlier initiatives. “Florida is known as the sunshine state, and there is a lot more we can do to increase solar in our communities,” Kane says.

A county fellow who worked at the International City/County Management Association (ICMA), co-leader of the SolSmart program, encouraged the county to get involved. Working with the SolSmart technical assistance team, the county placed a zoning determination letter on its website to help reduce hurdles to solar projects. It also conducted several training programs for permitting and inspection staff. In the future, the county may decide to pursue Gold designation as a way to spur further improvements, including a reduction in solar permit times to three days or less, Kane says.

As the county seeks to expand the number of solar projects, one limitation is that the state of Florida does not allow power purchase agreements (PPAs). This removes a financial avenue for solar installations that is popular in other states. However, the county has sought to incentivize solar development in a variety of other ways. It has promoted solar co-ops that encourage residents to sign up at a discounted rate, and a program to encourage financing through property assessed clean energy (PACE). The county also hosts popular classes on solar energy topics (which have moved online during the COVID-19 pandemic), and even produced a “solar for kids” video, which features an experiment with a solar pizza oven that shows how to heat up s’mores in the sun.

Through these wide-ranging programs, the county has made a strong case that clean energy goes hand in hand with community engagement. SolSmart is proud to recognize this county that has a longstanding commitment to expanding clean energy options for the people who need it the most.