Insights & Connections

Solar for Local Governments Means Broad Planning, Broad Benefits

Systems connected: Planning and development, energy utilities, public works.

by / August 16, 2016

It can take a lot of information-gathering from different agencies within government and outside of it to plan well for a local government solar array. But it can yield a lot of benefit too.

Recently FutureStructure examined three local governments that have put up relatively large amounts of solar power on government-owned buildings and land: Yolo County, Calif., Washington, D.C., and Phoenix. All three had different approaches to financing and setting up solar, but representatives of the three governments largely agreed when it came to what the planning involved and what the systems accomplished.

One common feature regarding solar is the need for long-term planning. Whether a government is looking to buy solar panels outright, finance them or sign power purchase agreements, all need to consider some basic features of a specific site before putting up an array there:

  • What are the building’s power needs?
  • Will the roof need repairs anytime soon?
  • Will the government want to do anything with the roof that a solar array would prevent?
  • Is there any chance a developer will want to build a structure nearby that would throw shade onto the panels?
  • How might utility rates for electricity change over the foreseeable future, and how will that compare to the money the government saves in switching to solar?

That information will come from a variety of sources, and a few of them will specifically tie projects together. For example, in Washington, D.C., the municipal government is waiting for crews to complete work on many school roofs before beginning work on solar installations. In the meantime, it can weave solar preparation into the work done on the roofing projects.

The benefits can also be huge. At the very least, all three governments have used that planning process to ensure that they will save thousands — even millions — of dollars each year in the form of lower power bills. And in Yolo County, the government has actually put so much solar in place that it has created a new revenue stream for itself by selling electricity back to its utility.

That’s all on top of the reason these and many other governments are pursuing solar projects. All three had environment goals put in place by elected officials, and solar was a common way those governments could reduce greenhouse gas emissions while effectively saving money over the long term instead of increasing spending.