Tools to Help Local Governments with Solar Planning & Deployment

SolSmart recently hosted a webinar titled Decision Support Tools for Local Solar Planning & Deployment, where several of our experts provided an overview of publicly available tools to help communities go solar, largely developed by the U.S. Department of Energy and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). These tools can help local government staff 1) better understand their community’s solar resource potential, 2) explore the economics of developing solar and storage projects within their communities, and 3) plan and develop policy to incentivize solar.

The experts who participated in the webinar included:

Below is a short summary of some of the tools available, all of which are free to use. Check out the recorded full-length webinar or slide deck if you’d like to learn more!

National Solar Radiation Database (NSRDB) 

The National Solar Radiation Database (NSRDB) is a collection of meteorological and solar irradiance data sets for the United States and a growing list of international locations. It provides hourly and sub-hourly solar resource data so that one can see the amount of solar energy available at any given time and location in the U.S. The NSRDB provides users information about the level of solar irradiance at any given site, which is a key factor in choosing optimal locations for solar installations. This information can be critical for city planners, engineers, and developers. Other more tailored mapping tools that use NSRDB data:

  • RE Atlas – Allows users to see solar and other renewable energy resource data, such as hydropower, wind, and geothermal, to understand which renewable energy resources are optimal at specific sites.
  • Tribal Energy Atlas –Provides similar solar and renewable energy resource data but focuses on tribal land. It includes other types of data such as energy infrastructure location, environmental attributes, and energy expenditures. The tool offers the ability to see utility-scale PV potential within 10 miles of tribal land. This application shows the data generated and collected as part of the NREL study “Techno-Economic Renewable Energy Potential on Tribal Lands”.
  • Solar For All data explorer – This tool visualizes U.S. rooftop solar technical potential and other dimensions of low-and moderate-income energy use in the residential sector. Solar For All also provides data on energy expenditures, energy burden, demographics, and health indicators which might be useful for those designing programs and policies for LMI communities.
State & Local Energy Data (SLED) 

This tool models the solar PV potential for all 24,000+ cities and towns in the U.S. All cities and towns have a unique energy profile that provides comprehensive energy use and activity data to help cities plan and implement clean energy projects, and include summary reports on: greenhouse gas emissions, electricity generation, natural gas and other fuel source costs, renewable energy resource potential, transportation, buildings, and industry data.

Example of A Question This Tool Can Answer: What is the sector level breakdown of energy and emission data for my jurisdiction (or sub-jurisdictions)?


PVWatts is an easy-to-use calculator that estimates the energy production and cost of energy of grid-connected photovoltaic (PV) energy systems throughout the world, using NSRDB data. Allows users to easily develop estimates of the performance of potential PV installations.

Example of A Question This Tool Can Answer: What is the possible performance and annual value of my solar project?


System Advisor Model (SAM)

SAM is a computer program that calculates a renewable energy system’s hourly energy output over a single year, and the cost of energy for a renewable energy project over the life of the project. These calculations are done using detailed performance models, a cash-flow finance model, and a library of reasonable default values for each technology and target market.

Example of A Question This Tool Can Answer: What are the costs, cash flow, and performance predictions for my solar, wind, or geothermal project?

Community Solar Scenario Tool 

The Community Solar Scenario Tool provides a “first cut” analysis of different community or shared solar program options. Allows users to see how various inputs impact the economics of a project from both a potential customer’s perspective as well as that of the sponsoring utility.

Example of A Question This Tool Can Answer: What are the costs and benefits to various audiences of a single community solar project?

REopt Lite

REopt Lite is a decision support tool used to optimize energy systems for buildings, campuses, communities, and microgrids. Recommends an optimal mix of renewable energy, conventional generation, and energy storage technologies to meet cost savings and energy performance goals. REopt Lite is a subset of the full model’s capabilities available at no cost to the user.

Example of A Question This Tool Can Answer: What combination of solar PV, wind, and energy storage will help my site minimize energy costs or sustain a grid outage?

Building Energy Optimization Tool (BEopt)

The BEopt Tool evaluates residential building designs and identify cost-optimal efficiency packages at various levels of whole-house energy savings along the path to zero net energy. Provides detailed simulation-based analysis based on specific house characteristics, such as size, architecture, occupancy, location, and utility rates. Discrete envelope and equipment options reflecting construction materials and practices are evaluated.

Example of A Question This Tool Can Answer: What are cost-optimal energy efficiency packages for various levels of whole-house energy savings for my building design?

Below is the complete list of these tools and the information they provide:

If you would like to learn more about SolSmart or how our team of solar experts can use these tools to assess or advance solar in your community, request a free consultation here.