By law, every community in the seven-county metro is supposed to adopt a comprehensive plan that includes “an element for protection and development of access to direct sunlight for solar energy systems”. This requirement dates back to 1978, when there was an oil crisis and gasoline was $1.30 per gallon (or, close to what it was in 2011 inflation-adjusted). In 1979, Jimmy Carter put solar panels on the White House. Reagan took down the solar panels in ’86 and oil got a lot cheaper through the late 90′s.
The requirement remains however, even if few communities have ever done anything related to solar after they developed some language for their comprehensive plan. As we enter this season of plan updates, perhaps it’s time for another look at how solar access, land use, energy and other issues are interrelated, and what are vision is for our energy systems. Solar power is cheaper than ever, and the message is pretty clear on the need to start decarbonizing our energy system.
The City of Ramsey is one example of how communities have responded to this requirement. The land use chapter of their comprehensive plan has six policies for solar access protection, things like “ensure existing levels of solar access are maintained in developed neighborhoods” and “ensure future site and building plans maximize efforts to design for efficient use of solar energy including such elements as the location of windows, shade trees (and types), windrows, and driveways”. If you search Ramsey’s zoning code however, you’ll see they haven’t taken steps to do any of the “ensuring” their plan outlines. I only feel comfortable picking on Ramsey because I worked on the plan as a consultant and know that the solar access requirement got only lip service in the development of this plan. Not because they (or I) didn’t care necessarily, but because they didn’t receive any guidance on why they requirement was there, why it was important, and there were other pressing issues. It was treated as an afterthought by the plan writers and the plan reviewers. I’ve spoken to a number of planners who worked across the metro, and their experience is the same. Many communities have similar short text on solar access, but few have done anything beyond include some nice words.
Before I lay out a few things communities could do to truly make solar energy a priority, it should be noted that there are tradeoffs in protecting solar access. Trees are obviously a big enemy of solar power, but trees have tons of benefits like energy conservation, stormwater treatment, property values and even health benefits. Tall buildings can also shade solar energy systems, so very dense urban areas might not be appropriate for solar energy or “protection” of access must be carefully defined so as not to hinder future growth or restrict property rights.
So how do we start to make solar more of a reality in the Twin Cities?
- Map the resource. Many people may not understand the opportunity that’s available for solar. Minnesota actually has a fairly good solar resource, and solar panels actually perform better in the cold. In Cambridge, the Community Development Department, in conjunction with MIT have produced a web map of the solar potential of every building in the City which identifies potential PV system size, production, pollution reduction and cost savings per year. If we did this on a metrowide basis, the areas and buildings with the greatest solar potential could be quickly identified and city leaders and residents would have a better idea of what benefits (monetary and environmental) are right over our heads.
- Modify our local regulatory rules to make solar easy to do and unobtrusive. Cities like Minneapolis have streamlined their regulatory process to make permitting for solar installations quick and normal, not slow and unique. The Solar Energy Standards Ordinance is a good resource for communities that need guidance on how to accommodate solar installations in their code, deal with aesthetic issues and incentivize solar installation.
- Incentivize or require solar-ready construction. Minnesota has a set of design guidelines for buildings and sites that if followed, could allow solar to be easily installed when appropriate. Cities or the state could require or incentivize this construction when they have money in a project, are putting conditions on it, or are granting bonuses.
- Provide financing options. Programs like property-assessed clean energy and on-bill financing can give homeowners and businesses access to capital for longer payoff projects like solar power. These programs are typically administered by local governments and energy utilities.
- Plan for more resiliency and fewer climate impacts. Distributed or decentralized power systems can be more resilient to the severe weather we know is coming. When the true price of energy includes all environmental impacts, solar makes even more sense. Any plan we’re writing for 30 years (or even 10!) should put these issues front and center.