about solsmart

What is SolSmart?

SolSmart is a new national designation program designed to recognize communities that have taken key steps to address local barriers to solar energy and otherwise foster the growth of strong local solar markets. It is funded by the U.S. Department of Energy SunShot Initiative through the Solar Powering America by Recognizing Communities (SPARC) funding opportunity.

SolSmart primarily seeks to address solar “soft costs,” or business process or administrative costs that can increase the time and money it takes to install a solar energy system – costs which are then passed on to solar customers. SolSmart designation will provide high-profile, national recognition for communities that have made it cheaper and easier for home and business owners to invest in solar energy. In addition, achieving designation will send a signal to solar companies that a community is “open for solar business.” Such efforts can help attract new business, providing jobs and other economic development benefits.

Communities committed to pursuing SolSmart designation will be eligible for no-cost technical assistance from a team of national solar and local government experts. This technical assistance is designed to help communities meet the criteria for designation.

How can my community become involved?

Communities that are interested in pursuing SolSmart designation should complete the online Intake Form. A hard copy of the form is available for download, as well. For complete information about program criteria, please see the question “What criteria must my community meet to receive SolSmart designation?”

We encourage all communities to begin the intake process by submitting an initial draft of the Intake Form as soon as there is interest in pursuing SolSmart designation. The SolSmart team does not expect the first submission to show a community achieving all criteria required for designation.

Though the Intake Form is sometimes referred to as an “application,” it is actually a dynamic benchmarking exercise that assesses a community’s current status in relation to soft cost areas. After taking additional actions, either independently or with the help of technical assistance, SolSmart will update the Intake Form to reflect a community’s achievements.

What does it cost to participate?

There are currently no fees or other such costs associated with SolSmart. However, all communities will need to spend time completing the Intake Form and providing documentation that criteria have been met. Communities receiving technical assistance (TA) will need to dedicate additional time to working with our TA team and implementing its recommendations. 

How does SolSmart relate to previous U.S. Department of Energy-funded programs?

SolSmart is a standalone program that recognizes communities for solar leadership. While it seeks to build off of previous U.S. Department of Energy-funded programs, SolSmart focuses its efforts on helping communities meet designation criteria. SolSmart welcomes communities that both have and have not participated in previous programs. 

What are solar "soft costs" and how do they relate to SolSmart?

Solar soft costs are the non-hardware, balance of system costs associated with solar energy systems. They are also referred to as “non-hardware costs” and include costs associated with: 

  • Planning and zoning
  • Permitting, interconnection, and inspection
  • Financing 
  • Customer acquisition
  • Installation labor

Part of the aim of the SolSmart program is to reduce solar soft costs, which currently represent as much as 64% of the total installed residential system price. To learn more about the above categories and how they increase costs, please visit the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy’s website.

solsmart designation and special awards

What does the designation mean?

The designation is a way to recognize U.S. communities that have taken steps to reduce barriers to solar and encourage the growth of a more robust solar market. It will serve as a signal to the solar market that the community is “open for solar business.” Achieving designation should decrease customer costs, provide jobs, and increase investment in solar development. The designation will also represent a point of pride for recipient communities, their elected officials and staff, and their residents. Finally, the designation signifies that the community is committed to a cleaner environment and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

What are the levels of SolSmart designation?

SolSmart is a tiered program consisting of three levels of designation: Bronze, Silver, and Gold. The levels of designation correspond to the number and type of actions taken by a locality to reduce solar soft costs. To learn more about the actions a community must take to achieve each level of designation, consult “What criteria must my community meet to receive SolSmart designation?”

What criteria must my community meet to receive SolSmart designation?

SolSmart is focused on recognizing communities that have worked to improve the solar friendliness of their community and encourage solar market development. The first step for communities pursuing SolSmart designation is to establish a vision and concrete goals for the adoption of solar within the community via a formal letter of commitment and begin tracking key metrics, such as the number of systems and installed capacity. Details on requirements for the letter of commitment can be found in the designation criteria document and the “Help” sections of the online application.

To be considered for all levels of designation, communities must meet the overall program pre-requisites and points requirements in the two Foundational categories: Permitting and Planning, Zoning and Development Regulations. These pre-requisites require communities to create and post a permit checklist online and conduct a review and develop a memo on existing barriers to solar in the zoning code. 

Communities must then earn points by taking actions across Special Focus categories of their choice, which also encourage solar cost reductions. These categories include: Inspection, Construction Codes, Solar Rights, Utility Engagement, Community Engagement, and Market Development and Finance. Points reward actions taken to reduce soft costs and point values are related to the level of difficulty and effect the actions have on improving the local solar market. Special Awards are available for communities that have made significant achievement in any of these categories. Communities can submit ideas for additional qualifying actions, which are not listed under the existing designation criteria, to receive Innovation points. These innovative actions will be eligible for credit as determined by a panel of experts and can potentially be selected to be showcased on the SolSmart website.

To qualify for SolSmart Bronze designation, a community must meet the overall program pre-requisites addressed above. Communities must earn 20 points each in the Permitting and Planning, Zoning, and Development Regulations categories and achieve an additional 20 points across all remaining categories (for a total of 60 points).

To qualify for SolSmart Silver, a community must first achieve the requirements for SolSmart Bronze. The community then must meet additional pre-requisites in Planning, Zoning and Development Regulations and Inspection and earn 100 points total (i.e., 40 points beyond the Bronze level) across all categories. 

To qualify for SolSmart Gold, a community must first achieve the requirements for SolSmart Silver. The community must then complete one additional pre-requisite in Permitting and achieve 200 points total across all categories. 

View the full list of SolSmart criteria.

What is the timeline for achieving SolSmart designation?

Though the SolSmart team seeks to designate 300 communities before September 2018, there is no specific timeline for communities working toward achieving designation. It will depend on each community’s starting point, staff availability, goals, etc. SolSmart experts will design personalized action plans for communities that outline a path to designation and a rough timeline. SolSmart is federally funded for a three-year period, but it is expected that the designation will persist beyond this timeframe.

What are special awards?

Communities that complete 60% or more of the points in a particular Foundational or Special Focus category will be eligible for a special award.

What was the Early Adopter campaign?

The Early Adopter campaign was the soft launch of the SolSmart program. As the designation criteria were being finalized, a team of national solar experts provided communities with technical assistance in critical soft cost areas - planning and zoning, permitting and inspection, and financing options - through the “Early Adopter” campaign. This exclusive campaign was reserved for the first 30 communities that 1) committed to addressing solar soft costs by working with our solar experts and 2) were on track to implementing solar best practices by the end of the campaign. 

What benefits accompanied Early Adopter status?

Communities that achieved Early Adopter status received additional technical assistance and earned bonus points which they were able to apply to achieving full SolSmart designation. In addition, the Early Adopter status provided further distinction for early movers within SolSmart.

solsmart technical assistance

Does my community need solar technical assistance?

Your Intake Form submittal will be reviewed against program criteria to see if your community meets the requirements for designation. The initial review will also determine at which level a community would qualify for designation. If, upon review, your community does not meet the requirements for SolSmart designation, your community would be eligible for technical assistance. The personalized technical assistance offered through the SolSmart program is designed to help all interested communities improve their solar markets and achieve SolSmart designation. A community may also receive technical assistance to achieve a higher level of designation, which is discussed in the section "How can my community access technical assistance?"

How can my community access technical assistance?

Communities can access technical assistance in two distinct ways. First, communities that apply to the program but that do not meet the requirements for designation upon initial review will be able to access technical assistance services to help them achieve SolSmart designation. Members of the Technical Assistance Provider team will work with communities to meet the program pre-requisites and address any additional actions necessary to achieve the points required to earn designation. Alternatively, communities that have already satisfied enough criteria to achieve the Bronze or Silver level of designation may indicate during the application process whether technical assistance in achieving a higher level of designation is desired. While communities seeking higher levels of designation are eligible for technical assistance, communities that have yet to achieve any level of SolSmart designation will be prioritized for service. 

What can my community expect to receive from SolSmart technical assistance?

Communities that commit to pursuing designation will be eligible for no-cost technical assistance from national solar experts. While the technical assistance is provided at no cost, communities must dedicate staff time to work with SolSmart experts to achieve program criteria to progress toward designation.

Communities can receive technical assistance on any of the following actions to help them achieve SolSmart designation:

  • Overall program pre-requisite actions
  • SolSmart Bronze, Silver, & Gold pre-requisite actions
  • Additional actions within any of the eight criteria categories
  • Approved innovation actions

Does the SolSmart program provide direct funding to communities?

The SolSmart program does not have direct funds to provide to communities. Instead, SolSmart offers technical assistance at no charge to communities that commit to pursuing designation.  

SolSmart Advisors Program

What is the SolSmart Advisors program?

The SolSmart Advisors program will send experienced professionals to 30 communities across the nation to assist local governments in addressing solar soft cost issues. Advisors will evaluate existing local government programs and processes and their impact on the local solar market environment. Then, Advisors will apply industry leading best practices to develop actionable plans that will move a community toward designation. SolSmart Advisors will assist communities through engagements lasting up to six months.

How does my community become the recipient of a SolSmart Advisor?

Once a community is involved in the SolSmart program, it becomes eligible to apply for a SolSmart Advisor. A highly competitive selection process, based on criteria such as level of need, will determine which communities receive Advisors. Communities can apply through regional organizations to submit more compelling applications. There will be three opportunities for a community to be chosen as a SolSmart Advisor host, and these will occur through a highly competitive process. Specific details regarding the selection process are located here.

What is the timeline for the SolSmart Advisors program?

The first application round for communities to apply for an Advisor has concluded. A list of communities chosen to host Advisors will be released in Fall 2016. The next application round for communities will open in January 2017. 

How does one apply to become a SolSmart Advisor?

Communities chosen to host a SolSmart Advisor will be able to nominate a candidate to serve in the community. The SolSmart team will review these candidates and make an eligibility determination. Communities that do not wish to nominate an Advisor – or whose nominees are not ultimately selected – will be paired with an Advisor with the assistance of the SolSmart team. These Advisors will be selected through an open, competitive process that is expected to begin in October 2016. 

To qualify as an Advisor, an individual will be required to have experience relevant to the SolSmart program objectives. However, Advisors will undergo an orientation and receive technical assistance training prior to deployment to a community.