Google's Project Sunroof shows solar potential for Chicago-area rooftops. Credit: Project Sunroof

As Illinois aims to meet ambitious new solar targets, the leaders of Chicago-area communities hope that a federally-funded collaborative project will spark solar development by cutting red tape and educating the public.

The Chicago-area Metropolitan Mayors Caucus is working with the Solar Foundation to help municipalities get simultaneously certified under the U.S. Department of Energy’s SolSmart program, part of the SunShot Initiative. The Solar Foundation received a three-year grant for the work.

With more than a dozen municipalities in four counties participating, the Chicago area is the largest SolSmart collaboration nationwide, according to the mayors caucus.

There is currently very little solar installed in the participating municipalities, but leaders hope that by creating affordable and uniform permitting processes and “solar landing pages” on municipal websites, both residents and developers will be motivated to create new markets for rooftop solar.

The SolSmart website cites studies showing that inefficient permitting processes can increase solar costs by $2,500 per customer, and one third of developers surveyed say they avoid serving communities with difficult permitting.

Untapped potential

The village of Hawthorn Woods northwest of Chicago seems an area ripe for rooftop solar, made up largely of comfortable single family homes and lush parks, with a population interested in sustainability and a median income of $160,000.

However, Hawthorn Woods has seen only six solar installations in the past six years, according to community development director Michael Cassata. But Cassata expects that number to climb substantially in coming years thanks to SolSmart.

In late October, Hawthorn Woods’ board passed a new energy code that makes installing solar much easier, drawing on expertise gained through the SolSmart program. (The board also decided to prohibit ground-mounted solar installations.) Cassata said that three of the town’s six solar permits were issued in the last year, which “might seem small” but represents a growing trend.

“The more people see it in their neighborhoods, the more they’ll talk to their neighbors and do the research,” he said.

Working together

By developing uniform permitting processes and codes, the workload on each individual municipality is reduced and solar developers and installers only need to become familiar with one process.

Charles Dabah, housing initiatives assistant for the Metropolitan Mayors Caucus, said the group is aiming to have permits turned around in three days, and 10 days at most. And they are planning to eliminate the need for special use permits and secondary engineering reviews for solar installations, in part by referencing the Solar America Board for Codes and Standards (Solar ABCs) which addresses common concerns about the weight and safety of panels on roofs.

Such information will be compiled on each municipality’s online solar landing page, educating residents about solar and clearly explaining the permitting process. Hawthorn Woods’ page lays out the town’s $375 flat fee for permitting, links to commercial and residential permit applications and contractor registration, and directs residents to a host of resources and guides about solar.

Mayors caucus director of environmental initiatives Edith Makra said the collaborative process has brought together local officials with different expertise, including the community development director of Beach Park, who is a former fire chief.

“Throughout the cohort we put our heads together, communities have strengths in different areas,” said Makra, who spearheaded the caucus’ participation in the SolSmart initiative. “We have building and zoning officials, planners, sustainability leaders, one energy adviser.”

The governments are also working with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 134 labor union and the Illinois Fire Inspector Association to train staff, including through classes at the IBEW’s renewable energy training school in the town of Alsip.

Lofty goals

The Future Energy Jobs Act, passed last year, calls for 2,700 MW of solar to be installed by 2030, up from only about 75 MW statewide today. About half of the new installations are supposed to be distributed and community solar.

Makra said the area’s SolSmart collaboration “dovetails beautifully” with the law, though the caucus had launched their effort independently of the bill negotiations.

“We’re seeing more communities very interested in expediting or facilitating the growth of solar in their communities, not really having had a process or thought about it before,” she noted.

“You’ve got to get everybody on the same page,” added Harry Ohde, who founded and leads the IBEW training center. “While this is all exciting times, right now is when you have to lay the foundation, get in the trenches, get your hands dirty, get everything ready — because it’s been mandated for this solar to happen.”

There are 12 communities currently involved in the caucus effort. The city of Evanston just north of Chicago has also participated in the group but raced ahead and achieved their own certification in October, with programs including a unified electric and building permit for solar installations.

The Evanston solar landing page links to Google’s Project Sunroof, an interactive tool which shows solar potential by block and notes that there are 47 existing solar installations in the city and 54 percent of buildings are viable for solar.

Project Sunroof shows that communities in the collaborative SolSmart group have much to gain through increased solar installation.

The tool shows that the city of Darien, for example, has 88 percent of buildings viable for solar but only 17 existing installations; Hanover Park has 86 percent viable buildings but only seven installations; Beach Park has 68 percent viable buildings and only four installations and Glencoe has 79 percent viable buildings and only eight installations.

In Hawthorn Woods, Cassata said he himself would “absolutely” consider installing solar on his home, “especially now since I’ve learned so much more about it.”

Correction: A previous version of this story said that the mayor of Beach Park was a former fire chief; in fact the community development director involved in the SolSmart program was a former fire chief. A previous version also said the Mayors Caucus received a three-year grant for SolSmart certification, in fact the Solar Foundation received the grant.

Kari has written for the Vxartnews since January 2011. She is an author and journalist who worked for the Washington Post's Midwest bureau from 1997 through 2009. Her work has also appeared in the New York Times, Chicago News Cooperative, Chicago Reader and other publications. Based in Chicago, Kari covers Illinois, Wisconsin and Indiana as well as environmental justice topics.