Why more suburbs are going after a SolSmart designation

If you want to install solar panels for your house or business, you're likely to find a faster and more user-friendly permitting process if your community has earned a SolSmart designation.

Illinois has 18 SolSmart communities, including Aurora, Hanover Park, South Barrington, and Cook and Kane counties. Another 22 - including Elgin, Lake in the Hills, Naperville and DuPage County - started the designation procedure last month.

The designation means towns and counties have streamlined processes and reviewed ordinances to clearly spell out requirements, and staff members have been trained to properly examine installation plans and inspect the finished work.

Schaumburg resident Ryan Ziolko, who had solar panels installed on his house in April, made the decision in December 2017, around the time the village announced it had gotten SolSmart certification.

"I was told it would ease the permitting," he said, "and yes, the actual process itself was pretty easy."

Ziolko worked with Wood Dale-based solar installer Rethink Electric. The company's project coordinator, Amy Downey, said it's easier to work with towns that have well-thought-out regulations in place.

"Overall, SolSmart is a very good idea," she said.

There are 223 SolSmart communities across the country. The program launched in April 2016 with funding from the U.S. Department of Energy to the International City/County Management Association and The Solar Foundation, which provides technical assistance.

Scott Annis, program manager for the International City/County Management Association, is encouraging more communities to apply before federal funding runs out in October 2020.

SolSmart has three levels - gold, silver and bronze - based on the actions taken to reduce barriers to solar development. Earning the designation can take as little as a month or up to a year, he said.

The grant also funds local advisers to help communities earn the designation. The Chicago region's Metropolitan Mayors Caucus helped 15 communities do that in January and now is helping the second group of 22.

"If a municipality does their homework and is well-prepared for solar development ... if you as a resident would like to install solar, it will be cheaper and easier for you to do that," said Edith Makra, the caucus' director of environmental initiatives.

It's important to have sensible provisions, she said. One problematic example: zoning codes that allow solar panels but require them to match the roof color.

Schaumburg and Hawthorn Woods attribute a spike in solar permit demand to their SolSmart designation. Experts also cite the Future Energy Jobs Act, which went into effect June 1, 2017, as revitalizing the state's solar market.

Martha Dooley, Schaumburg's landscape and sustainability planner, said the village received 41 residential solar permit applications and three commercial ones since Jan. 1, compared to three in past years. Something as simple as permit templates provided by SolSmart has made a big difference, she said.

"(SolSmart) has really sparked a lot of participation," she said. "When we were awarded our designation, our communications manager did a lot of outreach as far as press releases and social media to get the word out."

Hawthorn Woods issued eight residential permits in the past year and a ninth is in the works, said Chief Operating Officer Pamela Newton. Before that, only two permits had been issued - one in 2014 and one in 2016.

"Our village board was very committed to alternative energy sources and leading environmental efforts," Newton said. "It has really been a successful program."

Having the caucus lead the SolSmart designation process is very helpful, Elgin spokeswoman Molly Center said.

"Having our own sustainability plan was great," she said, "but having this regional effort itself is even better, so you don't have to recreate the wheel."

Towns and counties that earn SolSmart designation aim to have user-friendly solar permit processes for residents and business owners. Ryan Ziolko of Schaumburg installed solar panels on his house in April. courtesy of Ryan Ziolko
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