Denver named new program's first official "Solar Friendly Community"

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After several negative headlines around solar energy locally -- including the bankruptcy of Abound Solar and news of major delays on a planned Aurora solar plant -- Colorado has some good news to share about renewable energy. Denver officials announced yesterday that the city is the first to be recognized as a "Solar Friendly Community" as part of a new program that rates governments' policies related to solar.

The recognition comes from a new project funded by the U.S. Department of Energy's SunShot Initiative, a solar energy program that awarded "Rooftop Solar Challenge" grants to 22 teams across the country. The Solar Friendly Communities was the sole Colorado-based team to win and the only one that has launched an initiative that incentivizes cities through a scoring system.

The goal of the team, a collaboration of the Colorado Solar Energy Industries Association and several other private and public partners, is to boost local solar energy industries by officially recognizing cities and agencies that have implemented supportive policies.

"They made it a really major commitment to make it faster, easier and more affordable for people in Denver to go solar. That's the bottom line," says Rebecca Cantwell, SFC's senior program director, of Denver leadership (as well as a former staffer for the Denver Post and Rocky Mountain News). "We really want to make a statement to the outside world that Denver is welcoming solar energy and we think that'll have both environmental and economic benefits for citizens."

While the award for Denver, announced at a press conference in the City and County building, offers only a symbolic recognition, it does require an application process and point system that Solar Friendly Communities hopes could become a national model for advancing the solar industry.

The announcement comes just weeks after the DOE's financial support of the failed Abound Solar came under scrutiny in Colorado -- a talking point in the presidential election in this key swing state. And questions about public-private partnerships and government support of solar companies are especially relevant in Colorado, since the state is home to the National Renewable Energy Lab, the DOE's only laboratory dedicated to renewables. To learn more, see our recent cover story, "Sun Burn."

So what makes Denver worthy of this recognition?

Simply put, the city has policies that remove some of the common barriers to solar energy projects, says Cantwell.

Across Colorado, the average solar permit is around $500, but in Denver, it's around $50. "That's very, very low," she says.

Additionally, Denver offers same-day permits and streamlines inspections, which in general leads to greater efficiency in solar installations.

"These changes...have an obvious price tag," says Cantwell. "And it's a major impact on the time it takes to get a solar system through the process -- and that time is money for the solar installer. They can save money and they pass that money onto customers."

Continue for more on the Solar Friendly Communities program. Denver is the first municipality to be recognized by Solar Friendly Communities, which launched in February of this year. Interested municipalities can apply for recognition at solarcommunities.org, the program's site, which outlines a series of best practices. Each of its categories comes with "solar points" related to a wide range of areas, including educational components, licensing processes and online postings of requirements.

Here's a graphic from the program that outlines a road map to the Solar Friendly designation. Denver scored 1,275 points out of 1,600 possible points, giving the city a "gold level" recognition. The city also has an installed capacity of 9.4 megawatts in its buildings, which includes three prominent solar photovoltaic arrays at Denver International Airport.

The kinds of changes that Solar Friendly Communities looks to incentivize relate to what are known as the "soft costs," such as permitting, installations and regulatory costs, which generally account for up to 40 percent of a rooftop solar system's price. These costs have remained consistent as ones related to the hardware like solar panels have generally dropped in recent years, the organization says. If cities can help with those other areas of cost, then, it'll help the industry be more successful on the whole.

In the long term, this kind of award program could incentivize governments across the country, similar to the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, certifications, which encourage green designs through a scoring system, the group says.

Cantwell says her program is currently working with around a dozen municipalities in Colorado and hopes to expand beyond going forward.

"This is a tangible way we can work with our own communities and encourage leaders to take these actions," she says.

At the press conference yesterday, Hancock, standing next to a woman dressed as a giant sun, said this award allows the city to send a clear message.

"We are open for business when it comes to solar," he said, adding that it is good for job growth to support alternative energy. "We are putting people to work and that makes sense to me."

More from our Environment archive: "Drunk cycling: Is Denver's new bike DUI policy harsher than rules in other states?"

Follow Sam Levin on Twitter at @SamTLevin. E-mail the author at Sam.Levin@Westword.com.

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