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Solar Action Amid Rising Waters in Norfolk, Virginia

| By Zack Loehle, Interstate Renewable Energy Council (IREC)

Located on the sandy shores of southern Virginia, the City of Norfolk is already feeling the direct impacts of climate change. Even on sunny days, residents have to contend with flooding, and storms pose greater challenges than in years past. In addition, the city is faced with rising temperatures, especially in more developed neighborhoods. Solar energy is a key part of this local government’s climate mitigation work, leading the city to earn SolSmart Silver in 2022 and then Gold in 2023. For Norfolk, renewable energy is not just a way to achieve an abstract goal—by embracing solar, the city is working to ensure its resiliency and longevity.

“We are in a very low-lying coastal community; we experience subsidence in addition to sea level rise,” said Megan Hale, the City of Norfolk Environmental Sustainability Manager. “Even when it’s not raining outside, our streets will become flooded…We experience that nearly every day here.”
In 2017, Mayor Kenneth Alexander signed the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy and the City of Norfolk and community stakeholders subsequently created a Climate Action Plan. Finalized in 2019, it directs citywide efforts to mitigate and adapt to a changing climate. That includes an explicit focus on renewable energy, with a goal to increase the supply of electricity from renewables on residential, commercial, and municipal facilities.

Leading By Example

To achieve that energy goal, Norfolk’s local government has embraced a variety of strategies, including installing solar photovoltaics (PV) on municipal buildings. Currently, a library facility and two fire stations receive solar power from arrays financed through a power purchase agreement. Norfolk expects a 25-30% reduction in energy costs for these buildings as a result of the solar installations, and views them as a model for further solar projects on city-owned buildings. In addition, the Environmental Sustainability Division is working with the Norfolk Department of Public Works to design new city buildings to be solar-ready.

Norfolk’s work to install solar PV on city-owned buildings aligns with the city’s work on another U.S. Department of Energy initiative: the Better Buildings Challenge. This program helps local governments improve energy efficiency in buildings within their portfolios, simultaneously  decreasing costs, energy use, and carbon emissions. “We committed to reducing our energy consumption by 20% across 127 buildings by 2032,” Hale said. 

To achieve this goal, the city embraced an educational campaign, Watts Going Down, Norfolk, to change staff’s environmental knowledge and behaviors in the workplace. As a result of this campaign, the Environmental Sustainability team now has “Energy Champions” across the majority of city departments. Staff have a comprehensive understanding of which buildings are using the most energy, strategies to increase efficiency, and insight on which buildings are eligible for solar installations. 

Public Input: A Key Part of the Process

Public engagement and outreach is another key element of the Climate Action Plan that impacts all of the city’s efforts. “Everything comes back to education, outreach, and engagement. That process encompasses all other areas of the Climate Action Plan,” said Hale. 

Public outreach was especially important in ensuring that members of a historically disadvantaged community would receive the benefits of a planned 35-acre, eight-megawatt solar farm on a former landfill. Five megawatts of that installation will be dedicated to community solar. When the time comes, residents in the surrounding area will have the opportunity to subscribe to the program to receive a discount on their utility bills by tapping into that clean, solar energy. 

The City of Norfolk began working with a developer on plans to install solar panels on the landfill in 2023. As an initial step, the city engaged the local community, conducting “public meetings and some really robust and important conversations to hear from community members,” explains Hale. The feedback received from those community sessions helped to shape the scope of the project and future outreach efforts. The developer has also expressed interest in supporting local workforce development when building the solar farm. 

This engagement process is only beginning, and city staff plan to continue working with community members to solicit feedback and ensure that residents know the benefits of community solar. “That work is certainly not done,” says Hale. “Once we have the construction project well underway, we really want to engage [the community], help them understand their options, and help us understand where they’re at as well.”

Supporting Solar for Residents

While the city government works to install solar on its own buildings, it is also working to connect residents with public incentives and funding for solar installations. Education is a major part of those efforts. In one initiative, the City of Norfolk is partnering with a local nonprofit, the Elizabeth River Project, to host workshops that offer residents and businesses information about how to go solar. 

In addition, the city has connected residents with group purchase programs and financing options, such as Solar United Neighbors, Solarize Virginia, and a commercial property-assessed clean energy financing (C-PACE) incentive (a program that allows building owners to pay back the cost of a solar project over time through their property taxes). Together, these programs aim to spur more solar installations on both residential and commercial properties throughout Norfolk. 

SolSmart has played an important role in connecting these various initiatives and giving city staff momentum to keep moving forward. “We’ve had a really positive experience…In general, programs like SolSmart that are achievement-tiered are really motivating for us. Our Climate Action Plan includes many impactful strategies to reduce carbon emissions, and programs like SolSmart allow us to dangle that carrot out and strive for certain metrics and accomplishments,” Hale said. 

The City of Norfolk has no intent of stopping at SolSmart Gold, Hale said. As they keep moving forward, they’re examining opportunities to install wind energy on city-owned properties, further expand solar installations, and much more. With these initiatives, the city is taking real action in the fight against climate change.

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 more resilient energy future.