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SolSmart Program Helps Municipalities Prepare for Solar Development

Concerns about climate change and the role of greenhouse gases from fossil fuels have spurred a rapid increase in renewable energy sources, with solar photovoltaic panels being among the most popular. More homeowners and businesses are installing rooftop solar, and the development of utility-scale “solar farms” that will feed electricity into the regional grid is increasing. Some experts are predicting a solar boom is coming in Pennsylvania. But preliminary research by Professor Mohamed Rali Badissy at Penn State Dickinson Law has found that just one in 20 local zoning codes in Pennsylvania provides specific guidance for utility-scale solar projects and 87 percent give no guidance at all on solar projects. The remaining 13 percent address only residential self-generation. Badissy’s work is analyzing more than 2,500 local zoning ordinances, and there are many more municipalities that have no zoning ordinance for any land use. The federal government is trying to help municipalities develop a plan for addressing solar projects, including providing no-cost technical assistance. The SolSmart program, funded by the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Energy Technologies Office, helps communities develop transparent plans, ordinances, and permit timelines so they are ready when a project is proposed locally. “Local governments have tremendous influence over the prospects for solar energy growth. Unnecessary paperwork, red tape, and other burdensome requirements increase costs and discourage solar companies from moving to the area. By streamlining these requirements and taking other steps to encourage solar development, communities become ‘open for solar business.’ And since the solar industry is a leading source of American job creation, attracting solar investment in your community is a great way to promote economic development and new jobs,” the SolSmart website states. SolSmart is led by the Interstate Renewable Energy Council (IREC) and the International City/County Management Association (ICMA). It recognizes cities, counties, and regional organizations for making it faster, easier, and more affordable to go solar, allowing them to receive designations of SolSmart Gold, Silver, and Bronze by meeting certain criteria for permitting and inspection, planning, and zoning, government operations, and community engagement. There are more than 400 designees in the U.S., including 18 communities and one regional organization in Pennsylvania. Ed Gilliland, senior director of the IREC, spoke at the recent American Planning Association Pa. Chapter conference, explaining that the program provides technical assistance at no cost, but the communities must commit staff time to the process and be committed to becoming open for solar development. He noted that rural communities are seeing more interest in the development of large-scale solar projects, and noted that utility-scale projects involve not just the local government, but also state agencies. They are now working to develop guidelines for large-scale solar development, “so that when a developer comes you’re not left scratching your head,” he said. Municipalities interested in participating in the SolSmart program can go to the website, where they can get more information and request a consultation.

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