Monona among local cities looking to be ‘solar friendly’

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By Audrey Posten, North Iowa Times

The Clayton County Energy District held its quarterly energy breakfast in Monona on June 14, with the theme centered on the SolSmart program and several local cities’ efforts to make it faster, easier and more affordable for both residents and businesses to go solar.

Funded by the United States Department of Energy, SolSmart is a national designation program that recognizes counties, cities and small towns that are open for solar business. 

“Cities can say, ‘Hey, look, we’re a solar-friendly community. Our doors are open to solar and we want you guys to come and get this up,’” said Joel Zook, an energy planner with the Winneshiek Energy District, who spoke at the recent breakfast.

“There are a lot of obstacles to getting solar,” he added, “so it’s about getting them out of the way and making sure there’s no red tape installers have to deal with.”

Zook said two common barriers to solar include lack of education and lack of policies and support. Energy districts help with the educational aspect, as do solar contractors. Cities can help with the latter.

“Just making sure the policy is there to support solar as it gets installed is a great way for cities and counties to make sure they’re helping things along rather than getting in the way,” he stated.

The biggest barrier to solar, though lessening, remains the high up-front cost. There are the “hard costs,” like panels and hardware, then “soft costs,” such as permitting and inspection, financing, customer acquisition and installation and labor. 

On the local end, Zook said not much can be done about hard costs—that’s impacted by the national and global markets. Cities would also be hard-pressed to help with installation and labor and, for the most part, customer acquisition. Plus, he noted, you want to fairly compensate the installers, who are largely local, for the work they do.

“But that cost is dropping as costs get standardized,” said Zook. “We’re in a good place in northeast Iowa. We’ve got a lot of installers. Prices are competitive.”

The most obvious way cities can help, particularly if they are SolSmart certified, is by massaging down soft costs like permitting and inspection. They can streamline and standardize the process, assuring contractors know what to expect when installing a system and can get through the process quickly.

Three Clayton County communities­—Monona, Guttenberg and Elkader—are 2019 SolSmart applicants, and have been working with the energy district to meet the bronze (lowest) level of designation yet this summer. Once that’s completed, they can build toward silver and gold.

For each level, a city must check off a list of points. That includes 20 points in the permitting category, another 20 in the planning and zoning and development category, and 20 additional points in other categories.

“There are a lot of pathways to getting certified,” Zook assured.

A lot of points in the first category, permitting, can be racked up by simply making information and resources accessible on the city’s website. That not only makes things easier for both homeowners and business owners who are wondering what the solar process is like, said Zook, but it also aids contractors and electricians who haven’t done solar before and want to find everything in one spot. Luckily, the state helps a lot with this too.

“All the communities we’re working with, the state is actually doing the permitting, so when you’re applying for a solar project, your electrician will contact the state inspector,” Zook explained. “The state’s doing a really good job; they don’t charge an arm and a leg for an inspection. It can be $50 or $70 for a small home system. You get some points for having a fee that’s under $400.”

“You also get some more points for the fact the state offers an online application and has a short turn-around time for scheduling those appointments,” he added.

Cities can acquire points in the second category—planning, zoning and development—by reviewing and modifying their city codes and zoning requirements to include proactive language that says solar is allowed.

“If you put solar up on your roof and it doesn’t say it’s allowed in the code, if your neighbor is one of those grumpy folks and they go down and give the city clerk hell, it’s much easier and much less of a headache if you can just point to something clear in the code that says “‘Look, it’s allowed,’” Zook said.

Monona, for example, explicitly allows solar as an accessory building in all four of its residential zones. Anywhere a homeowner can build a garage, they can also put solar, with the same confines and setbacks, noted Zook. Monona could gain even more points by applying that same language to commercial and industrial zones. 

“Right now, the other commercial and industrial districts are silent on that, but the city’s looking at modifying the language a little bit,” said Monona City Administrator Dan Canton. 

An amendment would involve a review and public hearing by the planning and zoning commission, before going to the city council for another public hearing and final consideration and action.

“There’s ample opportunity for people to comment on the language,” Canton said.

However, he noted that communities also have to be cognizant of subdivisions that have their own covenants. Collectively, the homeowners there can choose to allow solar or not.

“We have two subdivisions in Monona that are silent on solar, but they actually have stricter setbacks and others things more strict than the city’s ordinance,” Canton said. “The homeowners are the deciders, and that can change over time. As a buyer, you know going in.”

According to Zook, a major way cities can gain additional points for bronze level certification is by pursuing solar power for community facilities. Monona is working on that right now.

Of the city’s 11 properties, three—the swimming pool, north lift station and water tower—are suitable, said Canton. Most of the reasoning has to do with space.

“You have to have enough space to create enough solar panels to collect enough energy to offset the existing kilowatt hours,” he explained.

Monona is hoping an investor will support a project, paying for the units of solar collectors up front. Canton said the city would then pay them a fee for so many years before buying it out. 

“If you do the math, the difference in savings, we’d own the system after nine years,” he said, “so the savings from that point on would be astronomical.”

Moving forward, Zook hopes more communities will pursue the SolSmart designation. Joleen Jansen, program manager with the Clayton County Energy District, will help with that.

“The energy districts are part of the age of enlightenment. We’re trying to do what we can to educate everybody about the ways we can retain wealth and positively affect the environment,” she said. “That’s why we put talks on like this and continue to talk to the municipalities.”

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