Solar energy is booming in Florida, which now ranks fifth in the nation for solar installations and second for the number of solar industry jobs. In Leon County, which encompasses the Tallahassee metro area, local officials are working hard to make sure their community benefits from this growth. Leon County recently became the first community in the Florida panhandle to receive SolSmart designation, and one of the first counties in Florida to achieve SolSmart Gold.
With about 400 solar PV systems installed, solar is becoming a popular choice for county residents and businesses, says Tessa Schreiner, Sustainability Manager for Leon County. A number of formal commitments at the county level are helping renewable energy thrive. In April 2019, the county passed the Integrated Sustainability Action Plan that includes a 30% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from county operations, which will be met through energy and fuel efficiencies along with solar energy. In January 2020, the county passed an ordinance that provides definitions for solar systems in the code and encourages the use of solar energy through a streamlined and expedited permitting process with minimal costs.
Schreiner says she first learned about the SolSmart program from other local sustainability directors in her network. One appealing aspect of the program was how it sets official benchmarks for the county’s solar energy accomplishments. “I love a good framework to understand how we’re doing and what we can do better,” Schreiner says. In addition, a SolSmart designation allows the county to be recognized among its peers as a solar-friendly community.
To work toward designation, the county received no-cost technical assistance led by Toyah Barigye, Senior Program Manager at The Solar Foundation. One important feature of SolSmart is that it’s open to communities at every stage in the process. This includes those that have already made significant progress on solar energy as well as communities that are just getting started. In this case, Leon County had already met most of the requirements for Gold designation and was focused on documenting its achievements. “At Leon County, we have continued our focus on reducing barriers to local solar energy development to increase access to renewable energy while also supporting jobs and businesses in the industry,” said Leon County Administrator Vincent S. Long. “This recognition would not have been possible without the dedication of our Leon County employees as well as the leadership and support provided by the Board.”
One new milestone the county achieved through SolSmart was ensuring a three-day turnaround time for small rooftop solar PV permits, a requirement for Gold designation. The county also created a new solar landing page as a resource for developers looking for permit information, or residents interested in learning more about solar. Leon County works in close coordination with the two local electric utilities to ensure timeliness and efficiency in the permitting and interconnection process.
One policy challenge for Florida communities is that the state does not allow power purchase agreements (PPAs), which makes impractical for the county to pursue utility-scale solar projects. As a result, the county is focused on encouraging the development of commercial-scale developments, as well as residential solar and county-owned facilities. Solar panels have been installed on five Leon County buildings so far, and the county has completed a survey of its major facilities to determine the best prospects for future installations. The county’s largest installation to date is a 60 kW array on a parking cover at its net-zero Sustainable Demonstration Center, which offers an educational opportunity for the public on energy conservation, renewable energy, and sustainability. The facility also has a geothermal heat pump and a rainwater recovery system.
Local officials are hopeful that the SolSmart Gold designation will help both residents and businesses recognize that Leon County is a great place to go solar. “Being only the third county in Florida to be recognized as a SolSmart Gold community truly demonstrates the County’s commitment to supporting renewable and sustainable energy sources,” said Leon County Commission Chairman Bryan Desloge. “And this designation represents just the beginning of our continued work because we know how important renewable energy is for our community’s future.”
“I do hope it signals that this is a friendly place to do business and leads to more solar energy activity here in Leon County,” Schreiner says. And that’s exactly what SolSmart sets out to achieve: Making counties and cities across the nation “open for solar business.”