Why cities strive to put solar on it all

Oregon Department of Transportation via Flickr CC BY 2.0

During a webinar I hosted a couple of weeks ago, several municipal leaders and energy experts shared their cities’ stories about going solar. The conversation focused on Tucson, Arizona and Worcester, Massachusetts -- two cities thousands of miles apart that have each installed an impressive amount of solar panels on numerous city properties. They are just two examples of a widespread trend toward on-site solar energy in America’s cities.

Tucson has solar arrays on 22 city sites, ranging from covered parking lots and garages to community centers and police stations, and seven additional solar hot water installations.

Worcester has installed solar panels on 10 public schools and two capped landfills. Combined, they supply more than 10 megawatts of clean, renewable energy to power city operations. Dozens of other communities are chasing the sun alongside them, installing solar panels on a wide variety of suitable city properties. To name just a few:

  • Park City, Utah is committed to powering city operations with 100 percent renewable electricity by 2022, and has installed solar panels on a wide variety of city buildings to achieve that goal. Panels on transit buildings, police stations, affordable housing units, park buildings and city hall are all part of the mix.

Solar panels in Park City, Utah: police station (top left), City Hall (top right), and transit center (bottom).

  • Red Lodge, Montana, is one of many to install solar panels at its wastewater treatment plant, saving the city more than $53,000 in energy bills. Red Lodge hopes to expand its use of renewables--aiming to add 5kW’s of renewable capacity each year. The city is considering putting rooftop solar on City Hall, the police station, and the city pool.

A solar installation at the wastewater treatment plant in Red Lodge, Montana.

  • A number of cities, including Worcester; Brooklyn, Ohio; and Annapolis, Maryland, have converted old landfills into the sites of new solar farms. These solar projects are productive ways of making use of land that is deemed unusable for other construction projects.

In 2017, the city of Worcester, Massachusetts, opened the largest municipally owned solar farm in New England at the time, on top of a former landfill.

  • Lastly, many communities across the country are installing solar on schools and education centers. More than 5,500 schools in the United States now have solar panels.

These solar projects deliver sizeable benefits for both the local community and the environment we all share. Installing solar on city facilities reduces the need for energy from harmful fossil fuels such as coal and gas. Replacing those energy sources with clean and renewable ones means fewer global warming emissions and fewer harmful air pollutants affecting local air quality.

As the city of Tucson’s Energy Manager Michael Catanzaro put it, "Arizona is a really coal-dependent state. We get over 60 percent of our energy from coal, so anything [the city] can do to offset that makes an impact. Solar is probably the easiest way to do that."

Beyond the environmental benefits of harnessing energy from the sun, solar panel installations provide a number of other valuable services for cities and their residents. For starters, cities save money with solar. Additionally, solar energy makes cities more resilient to disasters. Both of those benefits are amplified when solar installations are paired with modern energy storage technology. Combining solar with high-capacity battery storage can eliminate the need for “peaker” power plants, which operate only when demand is especially high. “Peaker” power plants are usually less efficient than standard power plants, emit more harmful emissions, and are costly to operate. Also, if the electric grid goes down during a storm, cities can rely on solar and battery storage.

A city’s leadership can also inspire its residents and businesses to go solar. According to Chad Laurent, principal & renewable energy specialist at The Cadmus Group of consultants, "Solar is contagious. If you see solar on City Hall or other city properties, you might think, 'Maybe I can go solar too.'"

Rooftop solar panels on a school in Portland, Oregon, have educational value in addition to producing clean, affordable energy right where it’s needed.

In addition to inspiring change within the community, one city’s solar panels can also help encourage the city nextdoor to take the next step. And, leadership from cities can spur action at the state level. The race to go solar is a perfect example of thinking globally and acting locally -- and the effects could ripple through neighboring communities and, eventually, around the world.