Environment Missouri Research & Policy Center
Solar power is expanding rapidly. More solar capacity was added to the grid in 2019 than any other energy source. The United States now has more than 77 gigawatts (GW) of solar photovoltaic (PV) capacity installed — enough to power more than one in every 10 homes in America. Hundreds of thousands of Americans have invested in solar energy and millions more are ready to join them.
America’s major cities have played a key role in the clean energy revolution and stand to reap tremendous benefits from solar energy. As population centers, they are major sources of electricity demand and, with millions of rooftops suitable for solar panels, they have the potential to be major sources of clean energy production as well.
Our seventh annual survey of solar energy in America’s biggest cities finds that the amount of solar power installed in just seven U.S. cities exceeds the amount installed in the entire United States at the end of 2010.
Of the 57 cities surveyed in all seven editions of this report, almost 90 percent more than doubled their total installed solar PV capacity between 2013 and 2019.
To continue America’s progress toward renewable energy, cities, states and the federal government should all adopt strong policies that encourage homeowners, businesses and utilities to “go solar.”
The cities with the most solar PV installed per resident are the “Solar Stars” — cities with 50 or more watts of solar PV capacity installed per capita. In 2013, only eight of the cities surveyed for this report had enough solar PV per capita to be ranked as “Solar Stars,” but now 26 cities have earned the title.
Honolulu leads the United States for solar power per person among cities surveyed, followed by San Diego; Albuquerque, New Mexico; San Jose, California; and Burlington, Vermont. All of the “Solar Stars” have experienced dramatic growth in solar energy and are setting the pace nationally for solar energy development.
Los Angeles leads the nation in total installed solar PV capacity among the 70 cities surveyed in this report, as it did from 2013 to 2015 and from 2017 to 2018, after briefly being topped by San Diego in 2016. Los Angeles has added more than 215 MW of solar capacity since year-end 2016.
Nearly 45 percent of the cities surveyed in all seven editions of this report more than quadrupled their installed solar PV capacity from 2013 to 2019.
Leading solar cities can be found in every region of the country. Leaders in per capita solar capacity by census region include Honolulu in the Pacific region; Las Vegas in the Mountain region; Indianapolis in the North Central region; San Antonio in the South Central region; Washington, D.C., in the South Atlantic region; and Burlington, Vermont, in the Northeast region.
Solar panels generate power at the Market One commercial building in Des Moines, Iowa.
Jared Heidemann, U.S. Department of Energy via Flickr, CC-BY-1.0.
Many smaller cities and towns are also going big on solar energy.
- Las Cruces, New Mexico, had 10.4 MW of cumulative solar PV capacity installed as of the end of 2019, equivalent to 101 watts per person, making it a solar all-star.
- Asheville, North Carolina, has 89.5 watts of solar capacity installed per person, enough to be ranked a “solar star.”
- El Paso, Texas, has 50.5 MW of solar capacity, with installations on the city’s main library and municipal service center.
Fossil fuel interests and some utilities are working to slow the growth of distributed solar energy.
Over the past few years, many states have considered or passed cuts to net metering — the critical practice of crediting solar energy customers for the excess energy they supply to the grid. Additionally, some states and utilities are now targeting residential solar customers with fees on every watt of solar generation or putative rate designs that reduce the appeal and financial promise of installing solar panels. These changes, such as imposing demand charges and other electric bill fees only on solar customers specifically, could cause solar panel owners to pay as much for electricity as other customers, even though they consume less electricity from the grid.
Rooftop solar panels on a school in Portland, Oregon.
Portland General Electric via Flickr, CC BY-ND 2.0
U.S. cities have only begun to tap their solar energy potential.
Some of the cities in this report could generate hundreds of times more solar power than they do today. A National Renewable Energy Laboratory study estimated that small building rooftops alone are technically capable of hosting enough solar energy to cover the annual electricity needs of more than 130 million American homes — about as many as exist in the U.S.
Cities can go even farther by encouraging solar installations along roadways and as stand-alone utility-scale installations.
To take advantage of the nation’s vast solar potential and move America toward an economy powered by 100 percent renewable energy, city, state and federal governments should adopt a series of strong pro-solar policies.
Local governments should, among other things:
- Establish goals for solar energy adoption and create road maps and programs to meet those goals.
- Implement solar access ordinances to protect residents’ right to generate solar energy on their own property.
- Make permitting, zoning and inspection processes easy, quick and affordable.
- Expand access to solar energy to apartment dwellers, low-income residents, small businesses and nonprofits through community solar projects and third-party financing options, such as power purchase agreements (PPAs).
- Implement policies that support energy storage, electric vehicle smart charging and microgrids.
- Require new homes and buildings to be built with solar panels, or at least be constructed to be “solar-ready.”
- Support and push for strong state-level solar policies.
State governments should, among other things:
- Set or increase renewable energy targets for utilities to supply 100 percent of their electricity using renewable energy, and adopt specific requirements for solar energy adoption.
- Adopt and preserve strong statewide interconnection, net metering and virtual net metering policies.
- Ensure that electric rate designs support, not punish, solar adoption.
- Encourage solar energy installations through rebate programs, tax credits and financing programs such as low- or zero-interest loans, green bonds, and Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) financing.
The federal government should, among other things:
- Continue and expand financing support for solar energy, particularly the Solar Investment Tax Credit, which provides a 26 percent tax credit for the cost of installing solar panels. The credit should be extended to apply to energy storage systems, such as stand-alone batteries.
- Continue to support research to drive solar power innovations, such as the U.S. Department of Energy’s Solar Energy Technologies Office.
Errata: A previous version of this report included an incorrect version of Figure ES-2 and Figure 1 that mislabeled solar capacity per capita in some cities. The map has been corrected.