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Tackling Net Zero: Iowa City Embraces Wind and Solar

| By Zack Loehle, Interstate Renewable Energy Council

Home to the University of Iowa and located on the windy plains of the Midwest, Iowa City, Iowa is moving rapidly towards a 100% clean energy future by utilizing a mix of renewable energy sources. Through wind energy development undertaken by the city’s utility partner, MidAmerican Energy, this bustling college town has already achieved its 2030 goal of reducing greenhouse emissions by 45% compared to 2010 levels, in line with guidance from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. To achieve its subsequent goal of net zero emissions by 2050, Iowa City is embracing solar energy. These efforts led the city to earn SolSmart Gold designation in 2023. 

Elected officials from Iowa City pose with their SolSmart plaque.
Officials from Iowa City pose with their SolSmart Gold Plaque.

“Adding solar in the mix is a way of helping maintain that 100% renewable energy access, while also increasing the reliability and resilience of the city’s energy system,” said Sarah Gardner, the Iowa City Climate Action Coordinator.

In working to achieve these long-term solar goals, Iowa City’s government recognized that many small things can impact whether or not solar energy gets installed. That’s what initially brought them to SolSmart: cleaning up the city’s building codes to support solar. “We were reviewing our ordinances and identifying anything we could do to help remove barriers for solar access for residents or businesses… And that led us to looking at SolSmart as a way to help verify that we were indeed embracing national best practices,” Gardner said.

Solar-Powered City Government

In addition to updating city ordinances, Iowa City is laying the groundwork for many solar-powered municipal buildings in the coming years. After conducting a feasibility study and finding that their current buildings had limited solar capacity, the City took action to ensure that all future construction would be solar-ready. Since making that change, Iowa City has been able to move forward with multiple high-impact solar installations. 

A solar installation on the roof of the Iowa City public works building.
A solar photovoltaic (PV) installation on the roof of the Iowa City public works building.

One of the most notable installations was a 40 kW solar photovoltaic (PV) array on the public works building. Combined with energy efficiency elements in the building’s design, the solar installation meets the full electrical needs of the building. Another project, currently in the planning stages, involves a new transit facility. Powered by solar PV, the planned transit building will include solar power to power both the building and the growing number of electric buses in Iowa City’s transit fleet.

These solar arrays are impactful and important, but because both are rooftop arrays, they are quite literally out of the public eye, limiting awareness of the city’s sustainability efforts. Luckily, Iowa City has another initiative to install more visible ground-mounted solar arrays at the local airport. Scheduled for construction this summer, the airport solar installation will meet the electrical needs of the airport’s main building and the runway lights. It is planned to be operational by the fall.

Increasing Access

Iowa City’s solar installations are important, but it’s just as important to ensure that residents have access to affordable solar energy. Working with neighboring Linn and Johnson Counties, the city supported a highly successful solar group purchase program through the Midwest Renewable Energy Association (MREA), leveraging community interest in solar to drive down costs and increase residential installations. That campaign saw the largest purchase of combined solar capacity within any of the MREA group-buy solar programs to date.

A rooftop solar installation on a local business in Iowa City.
A rooftop solar array installed using funds from Iowa City’s Climate Action Grant program.

Additionally, Iowa City offers several grant programs to facilitate the deployment of solar in commercial areas. The first is the tax increment financing (TIF) grant program. In certain commercial districts, businesses pay a small tax that makes them eligible for funded solar and energy efficiency upgrades. For example, the Adamantine Spine Moving Company used TIF funds to install solar power at their warehouse, complementing an existing geothermal system. The company was then able to accelerate plans to add electric vehicles to its fleet, putting the money saved in energy costs toward the purchase of an electric truck.

For organizations outside of the TIF districts, Iowa City offers a Climate Action Grant program to support similar solar and energy efficiency projects. This grant has supported solar installations at a homeless shelter, a community medical clinic, and a domestic violence prevention center, among other successes. 

The Climate Action Grant program has also resulted in an ongoing relationship between Iowa City and Habitat for Humanity, a nonprofit affordable housing organization. The collaboration began when Habitat for Humanity applied for Climate Action Grants to install solar PV and complete home efficiency and electrification upgrades in the homes it builds for income-eligible families. After the success of those projects, Iowa City and Habitat for Humanity are now discussing a net zero initiative for the city’s public housing. 

“That’s been a wonderful collaboration, and another example of how solar just really opens the door for other climate-related initiatives,” said Gardner. Net zero public housing “is something that Habitat for Humanity has been involved with in other locations, so we’re able to lean into their knowledge and design work that they’ve already done to help accelerate plans of our own, which has just been wonderful. Solar makes good friends, I guess is what I’d say.”

Simple Solutions, Big Impact

As Iowa City worked through the SolSmart program, increasing the impact and accessibility of solar energy in the community, one of the most impactful steps was also one of the simplest: the solar landing page on the city’s website. 

“Having a clear, centralized, and accessible repository of information on solar resources and processes for residents has been a genuine benefit of having gone through the SolSmart program,” Gardner said. “Residents see [the landing page] as a valuable and trusted source of information, and the guidance and suggestions we received from SolSmart were a big help in getting us there. It also has helped us demonstrate the value of all our many combined efforts – people familiar with one or two of our projects (like the group buy or climate action grant program) may not be aware of how it all fits into a comprehensive strategy.” In short, she said, “the SolSmart certification process really helped us figure out how to talk about it all together.” 

The solar landing page has been so successful that Iowa City staff created a similar resource for residents looking for information about heat pumps. In this way, they are taking the lessons learned in earning SolSmart designation and applying them to other initiatives that advance the city toward a sustainable and equitable future. 

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.

Images credit: Iowa City, Iowa Department of Climate Action and Outreach.