Photos: Top ten solar cities in the U.S. -- and why Denver's finish isn't good enough

"Shining Cities," a new report from Environment Colorado, compiles an incredible amount of data about solar power, including a ranking of the top ten solar cities in the United States.

Yes, Denver made the list -- barely. But while this accomplishment might seem worthy of praise, Environment Colorado energy associate Margaret McCall believes the community should be doing even better.

"The top ten is never something to turn up your nose at," McCall acknowledges. "But Colorado has the fifth greatest solar potential of any state in the country. So Denver could be doing more than we are."

Environment Colorado has come up with some suggestions about how to improve -- ten of them that we've interspersed below along with the photo-illustrated roster. But McCall focuses particularly on net metering programs, in which "owners of rooftop solar systems receive a credit back on their monthly electric bill for any excess solar that gets sent back to the electricity grid."

Such innovative approaches "directly impact people's abilities to make solar economically and financially feasible," McCall stresses. "There are a lot of different people who've already gone solar and have a stake in it -- and a lot of people who might want to give it a try."

Here's the list, as well as the countdown of ten ways your city can go solar and the "Shining Cities" report.

Number 10: Denver, Colorado Cumulative Solar PV Capacity (MW): 25

Tenth way your city can go solar: Push for strong state and federal leadership

Pro-solar state and federal policies are critical for the development of solar energy, and cities should use their influence to advocate for stronger state and federal financial incentives for solar energy, solar "carve-outs" in renewable electricity standards, strong net metering and interconnection standards, and comprehensive solar rights policies.

Number 9: San Francisco, California Cumulative Solar PV Capacity (MW): 26

Ninth way your city can go solar: Guarantee "solar rights"

Local governments should adopt "solar rights policies," which protect access to solar power by overriding local ordinances or homeowners' association policies that bar residents from installing solar power equipment on their properties. Cities such as Sacramento have passed laws to allow solar installations to exceed height restrictions stated in the city zoning code. Some cities have added building code provisions that require homes to be "solar ready," or able to accept solar panels without additional wiring or major building changes, thereby further facilitating homeowners' access to solar power.

Continue to keep counting down the top ten solar cities in the U.S. Number 8: New York, New York Cumulative Solar PV Capacity (MW): 33

Eighth way your city can go solar: Get local utilities involved

Cities should encourage the electric utilities serving their areas -- whether municipal or investor-owned -- to partner with them in unlocking the potential of solar energy. In New York City, the investor-owned utility Con Edison worked with the city and the state to launch the "100 Days of Solar" initiative to streamline the process of issuing solar permits, interconnecting customers to the grid, and issuing rebates.

Number 7: Indianapolis, Indiana Cumulative Solar PV Capacity (MW): 56

Seventh way your city can go solar: "Solarize" your city

Bulk purchasing and public education programs can help residents of city neighborhoods "go solar" together. "Solarize" programs connect solar installers to many customers at a time and reduce costs for solar installers and consumers. Portland, Oregon, was the first to offer this program, and other city and state programs -- like Solarize Boston, Salt Lake Community Solar, Solarize Asheville, and Solarize Connecticut -- have followed suit.

Continue to keep counting down the top ten solar cities in the U.S. Number 6: San Antonio, Texas Cumulative Solar PV Capacity (MW): 84

Sixth way your city can go solar: Give solar power a tax break

Cities can offer tax breaks for solar power. New York City offers a property tax credit for homeowners who install solar panels and exempts residential solar panels from the local sales tax. Cleveland and Cincinnati offer property tax abatements for buildings that are certified as "green," including many that incorporate solar energy.

Number 5: Honolulu, Hawaii Cumulative Solar PV Capacity (MW): 91

Fifth way your city can go solar: Encourage community solar projects

Community solar programs allow customers to support and benefit from solar power projects in their communities, even if the solar panels are not connected to their own electric meters. Cities can work with their utilities to offer this alternative for homeowners or renters who cannot site solar panels on their residences. Seattle City Light, for example, allows its customers to invest in community solar projects. The program recently funded an installation on the Seattle Aquarium.

Continue to keep counting down the top ten solar cities in the U.S. Number 4: San Jose, California Cumulative Solar PV Capacity (MW): 94

Fourth way your city can go solar: Reduce unnecessary red tape and fees

Going solar should be easy and hassle free. Permitting, installation and interconnection fees make up a significant part of the cost of a solar project, and cities can remove or reduce these fees to make solar power more accessible to residents and businesses. In Philadelphia, solar permitting fees are reduced to include only the cost of labor, not equipment. Chicago's "Green Permit Program" allows solar PV projects to receive permits in less than 30 days. The cities of Portland and San Francisco have streamlined the permitting process by reducing wait times for solar PV applications and creating online permitting tools. The Long Island Unified Solar Permit Initiative is at work in Suffolk and Nassau counties in New York to standardize regulations across communities and reduce fees and wait times for solar permits.

Number 3: Phoenix, Arizona Cumulative Solar PV Capacity (MW): 96

Third way your city can go solar: Develop and publicize local financing options

Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) financing programs allow property owners to borrow money from a specially created fund, repaying the loan over time through their property taxes. In December of last year, Wayne County, which includes Detroit, became the largest local government outside of California to create a PACE district to provide financing for commercial properties. Cities can also partner with local financial institutions to offer competitive loans for solar power. The "Milwaukee Shines" program, for example, partnered with Summit Credit Union to offer low interest loans of up to $20,000 for eligible solar PV installations.

Continue to keep counting down the top ten solar cities in the U.S. Number 2: San Diego, California Cumulative Solar PV Capacity (MW): 107

Second way your city can go solar: Let government lead by example

Cities can set an example and boost the local solar market by installing solar power on the rooftops of public buildings and engaging in high-profile demonstration projects. The city of New Bedford, Massachusetts, has reduced electricity spending by installing solar power on city buildings and public spaces, including installations on three schools, a public gym and the Department of Public Infrastructure Building.

Number 1: Los Angeles, California Cumulative Solar PV Capacity (MW): 132

First way your city can go solar: Set a goal and commit to it

Ambitious goals for solar power provide a rallying point for the public and elected officials. Last year, Cincinnati officials adopted a goal of putting solar panels on 20 percent of the city's roofs within 15 years. Cities can designate a point person and/or an advisory committee to bring people together around the goals. The city of New York has appointed a solar team that works to bring more solar power online in the city.

Here's the complete report:

Shining Cities Report

Send your story tips to the author, Michael Roberts.

More from our Environment archive circa September 2013: "Photos: The 100 dirtiest power plants in America -- including two in Colorado."

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