Cities ‘could generate hundreds of times more solar power than they do today’

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Twenty-six U.S. cities have at least 50 watts of PV per capita—and they’re not all in the sunniest states.

Honolulu is in a league of its own, with 841 watts of PV per capita, as a study from the nonprofit Environment Texas reports. San Diego, with 295 watts per capita, leads the rest of the pack.

While the list of 26 cities is dominated by cities in California and the Southwest, 12 far-flung cities also make the cut, from Burlington and Newark in the Northeast, to Jacksonville and Charleston in the Southeast, to Indianapolis in the Midwest.

For suburbs looking to join the race, the report adds that the small community of Palm Springs, California has 790 watts of PV per person.

PV-friendly

More than 150 cities have set a goal to power city operations with 100% renewable electricity, says the report.

The report presents several options for these cities and others to also support rooftop PV installations. City officials can look to Chattanooga’s work to speed solar permitting. They can enact property-assessed clean energy (PACE) financing for rooftop solar, as El Paso, Texas has done. They can install solar on public buildings, and modify ordinances to allow energy storage and electric vehicle charging.

Following Tucson’s lead, cities can require new homes to either include solar, or be solar-ready, the report adds. Cities can enact solar access ordinances “to protect residents’ right to generate solar energy on their own property.” And they can work together with other cities to influence state policy.

1,118 GW

“U.S. cities have only begun to tap their solar energy potential,” says the report, citing rooftop solar’s technical potential of 1,118 GW, as estimated by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). Since NREL published its estimate in 2016, solar panel efficiencies have increased, which suggests a higher technical potential today.

The report’s authors say that some of the 70 cities included in the report “could generate hundreds of times more solar power than they do today.” Phoenix, Chicago, San Diego, Oklahoma City and Dallas “could each install more than 2,000 MW of solar PV capacity on small rooftops alone,” they say, citing the NREL study.

Los Angeles, with 121 watts of PV per capita, could host ten times more solar just on small building rooftops, say the authors, citing a U.S. Department of Energy study. But Washington, DC is setting the pace on meeting its potential, the authors say, citing the same DOE study, as the city has met “over a quarter” of its potential for siting PV on small buildings.

San Antonio could reach more than 6,200 MW of solar on its rooftops, the authors add, citing two sources.

The Environment Texas report obtained data for the core city within each of the nation’s 50 most populous metropolitan areas. For states not yet represented in that list of 50 cities, the analysis includes each state’s largest city. To compile the data, analysts sifted through separate data sources for each of the resulting 70 cities.

The 50 watts per capital value that is exceeded by 26 cities is not far below the U.S. national average of 70 watts of small-scale PV per capita. Cities are at a disadvantage to the nation as a whole in attaining a high level of PV per capita, as cities have taller buildings with less roof space per resident, while ground-mounted systems that are only economical in rural areas boost the national average.

The report “Shining Cities 2020” also presents data for 200 communities in Texas. A section on cities with municipal utilities offers additional policy options. The report’s authors are Adrian Pforzheimer and Elizabeth Ridlington of Frontier Group, and Ben Sonnega and Emma Searson of Environment America.

Here’s the report’s table of the 26 cities with at least 50 watts of solar per capita: