Solar Potential Just Got Brighter in the Upper Midwest

This blogpost was originally published by the Great Plains Institute

More communities than ever are using solar energy thanks in part to a program that makes it easier for local governments to make the switch to sun. The Great Plains Institute (GPI) led the Upper Midwest cohort of communities seeking SolSmart designation, the largest in the nation. Working with Clean Energy Resource Teams, Metropolitan Council, Midwest Renewable Energy Association, and Winneshiek Energy District, communities across Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin are now designated as “solar ready.”

Over the three years of the program, more than 17 communities in the Twin Cities and 38 in Greater Minnesota, Iowa, and Wisconsin earned the designation. In total, more than 80 communities received technical assistance through the program which enabled them to be solar ready even if they chose not to pursue SolSmart designation.

Those communities are part of the more than 300 that have earned SolSmart designation across the nation. Administered by The Solar Foundation and the International City/County Management Association and funded by the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Energy Technologies Office, SolSmart offers direct technical assistance and a set of criteria that help communities become solar ready. You can see the map of all the SolSmart designated communities in the U.S. on the SolSmart website.

The aim is to reduce solar “soft costs”– those costs not associated with the technological and hardware components of solar development.

Communities in the SolSmart program range from rural townships and villages to major metropolitan areas to counties and regional governmental bodies. Communities in the SolSmart program may achieve Bronze, Silver, or Gold designation depending on the level of action taken on solar development.

Upper Midwest Cohort
The Upper Midwest cohort was two-tiered, with one tier of communities working towards designation and the second tier of technical assistance providers in the three states working together to ensure technical assistance delivery.
Over the course of 2019, 23 communities in the cohort received the SolSmart designations. Others chose to move forward with specific solar projects in lieu of SolSmart designation. There are 16 more communities still receiving technical assistance through the cohort.
Communities designated thus far in 2019 through this cohort include:

Over the course of the entire three-year SolSmart program, 55 communities and local governments in Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin have been designated, many of which GPI has worked with.

Solar-Ready Communities
As the cost of solar development decreases, an increasing portion of the cost comes from paperwork, staff time, understanding regulations, and red tape (i.e., “soft costs”). A solar-ready community is characterized by reducing barriers to solar development in their local zoning code, creating a more transparent and streamlined permitting process, and a variety of outreach and education actions. Communities working to become solar ready through the SolSmart program pursue actions to reduce soft costs that best fit their community’s goals and priorities.

Communities in the Upper Midwest cohort have made impressive strides on capturing solar opportunities over this year. Some highlights include:

Four communities in Central Wisconsin (Portage County, Stevens Point, Village of Amherst and Village of Plover) sponsored the Grow Solar Central Wisconsin group purchase program. These communities also worked with students and staff at the University of Wisconsin–Stevens Point to evaluate opportunities to include solar energy in their zoning ordinances.

Iowa communities worked with energy districts in their region to share knowledge and understand opportunities for regional solar opportunities.

All three states hosted their own trainings that were open to interested communities. Iowa’s training emphasized large-scale solar development opportunities, Wisconsin cross-trained for best practices in permitting and planning for solar development, and Minnesota focused on permitting and inspections.

Communities across Minnesota, including rural townships and Iron Range communities with large mining industries, focused on resident outreach and created web pages that link to a variety of resources, including a statewide solar suitability map that shows solar potential on rooftops throughout the state.

The SolSmart cohort is just one way that GPI works with communities on solar readiness. Our work also includes capturing co-benefits such as agricultural protection and natural resource conservation through solar site design guidelines, and installing solar on public buildings, among other projects.