Here comes the sun?

by Joel Landau

In a popular Beatles song, writer George Harrison sings optimistically about the coming of the Sun following the long, dreary British winter.

Fortunately for him he didn’t have to live through the longer and drearier process of awaiting a solar proposal from Greensboro city staff. In March 2015 City Council directed the City Manager to develop a proposal for making Greensboro the most “solar friendly” city in North Carolina. Here we are 15 months later, still awaiting the coming of the Sun. Maybe the draft will have been released by the time you read this. It’s now in its final stages of development in the Planning Department. To be fair the latest delay is beyond staff’s control. I’ll explain that in a moment but first: “Sun, Sun, Sun, here it comes!” In March of 2015 a “Grow Solar” group, which I am part of, made a presentation at a City Council work session. All Council members were present at the work session, as this was before the changeover to City Council’s current Committee structure. The solar presentation looked at the energy benefits and jobs/economic benefits of solar. The Solar group asked Council to review Greensboro’s zoning ordinances, permitting fees and procedures, and such. The aim was to identify and remove obstacles to solar installation, and then for the City to actively promote solar. The presentation was well received. Council directed the City Manager to report back with a plan for making Greensboro the most solar friendly city in the state, if not the country. It was noted that there are multiple free resources to expertly guide us through the process. In other words staff wouldn’t be starting from scratch.

Here are some factoids to chew on: — In 2015 there were 208,859 solar industry jobs in the US.

— California had the most of any state, with 75,598.

— North Carolina was ninth in the country, with 5,950. That put us second in the Southeast, close on the heels of Florida.

— More than half of the solar jobs are in installation. The rest are in manufacturing, sales and distribution, and project development.

— There were 5,311,791 solar powered homes nationwide at the end of 2015.

— There are now more people directly employed in the solar industry than in the coal industry. If you include all secondary jobs as well, then the edge goes slightly to coal.

— The median wage in the US for a solar installer was $21/hour. This is $3-4/hour higher than for the total workforce.

— Guilford County had 292 solar jobs, ranking it fourth in the state. Mecklenburg was first with 1019. Wake second with 750, and Orange third with 413.

On January 28 of this year staff attended a Greensboro Solar Policy Workshop. The Workshop was presented by Autumn Proudlove from the NC Clean Energy Technology Center (part of NC State University) and Riana Ackley from the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives (ICLEI). It was funded through the US Department of Energy’s Solar Outreach Partnership, a free technical assistance program. The Workshop examined local government best practices related to planning, zoning and permitting for solar. It looked at the Federal and State regulatory landscape; also the electric utility and rate impacts, plus financing options. All these were viewed relative to current practices in Greensboro, with an eye towards areas for improvement.

In late May I received an update from Hanna Cockburn, AICP. Her title is Greensboro’s Long Range and Strategic Planning Manager. She informed me that subsequent to the January 28 Workshop the Planning Department accepted an offer from Clark Henry of Optony to develop a Solar Roadmap for Greensboro. He’s done similar work for other cities in North Carolina, paid for by a federal Department of Energy contract. The plan for Greensboro was just about done last month when Henry’s DOE contract/funding expired. Completion of the plan awaits renewal of his contract. This is expected to happen any day, but City staff can only wait while the Feds go through their process. Cockburn is hopeful that Planning will receive a draft this month. Then the draft will go to the Community Sustainability Council and the Planning Board for feedback, after which it will go to City Council—possibly in August.

The plan, called a Solar Roadmap, will have three main sections: Permitting, Land Development Ordinance and the Market. The Permitting section will address both residential and commercial. It will consider items such as: can fees or inspections be lowered; is the application form easy to use; is the information online and is it readily available.

The Land Development Ordinance section will address zoning regulations as well as provisions regarding right-to-solar access. It will identify if there are unnecessary regulatory barriers to solar development.

The Market section will address ways the City can proactively educate the public about the benefits of solar and the ease of installing solar. Also, are there collaboration opportunities with other entities? One possible partnership would be with the Guilford County School system, as some folks from GCS have already expressed an interest in solar.

Schools, big-box retailers, and some other entities typically have large, sunexposed, relatively flat rooftops that would be ideal for a solar array. A stumbling block is the high upfront cost of putting in a large solar system. Fortunately, there are companies that are willing to install a system with no upfront cost to the building owner. The building owner wouldn’t own the equipment, but would pay a monthly rate to the installer/owner. The rate is set so that, even when combined with their ongoing Duke Energy bill, the client would still be saving money. Unfortunately, North Carolina does not allow these “third-party energy sales”. However, a bill was introduced last year (H245, the Energy Freedom Act) that would allow for third party sales. Sadly, Duke Energy actively opposes passage of this bill. You may want to ask your State Representative to support this game changing bill. Meanwhile, closer to home, ask your City Council Members to ask for completion of Greensboro’s Solar Roadmap and to support its adoption and implementation.

The Sun continues to pour energy down upon us. Let’s make better use of it by Growing Solar. !

JOEL LANDAU’S column appears the fourth Wednesday of each month.