As you may know, urban planning is all about creating sustainable communities that foster healthy population growth. Of course, wherever there’s a sprawling metropolis, there will also be an ever-growing need for electricity, and urban planners are often met with the challenge of sourcing power in the most cost-effective and responsible manner. From a logical standpoint, you’d think that would mean that every urban planner would choose solar over grid reliance or any other proposed power source. However, many cities and towns really haven’t opened up to solar yet, both politically and economically.
On the flip side, you have plenty of places where solar is quickly becoming the norm. California, for example, has become the first state to require solar panel installation on every new home built in the state, a requirement that will go into effect on January 2020. It’s no surprise then, that six out of the top 20 solar cities in America are in California. Whether you’re an aspiring urban planner who is looking for a solar-friendly city to pursue a career in, an interested homebuyer, or a solar panel specialist, you’ll probably find what you’re looking for in the following list of the top 15 cities where urban planners typically opt for solar:
Related: Reasons why Urban Planning is important for cities, Examples of Environmental Sustainability
1. San Diego
San Diego has long ranked one of the biggest producers of solar energy in the country. The city is working on an initiative called the San Diego Climate Action Plan that aims to have the entire city running on renewable energy sources by 2035. The amount of growth seen in San Diego’s solar sector has been phenomenal during the past two years. In 2018, the city produced enough solar energy to power 47,000 homes. Just one year later, that number has grown to 76,000 homes.
Semper Solaris (https://www.sempersolaris.com/locations/san-diego/), one of the top solar companies in San Diego, has experienced the city’s tremendous upscaling in solar power first hand. With offices through Southern California, the brand has taken part in a number of major solar installation projects that have significantly increased the solar output potential of San Diego and other Californian cities on this list.
2. Los Angeles
Los Angeles frequently goes back and forth between the #1 and #2 spot for the city with the highest solar energy production. In terms of the sheer volume of solar power produced, L.A. is a fair distance ahead of San Diego. However, the fact that San Diego nearly doubled its solar capacity in a single year means that it has seen a much faster rate of growth than L.A., hence its #1 ranking on our list. Despite having such a large output potential, L.A.’s solar production per capita isn’t as high as some other cities, as there are almost 4 million homes in Los Angeles county alone.
3. Riverside and the Inland Empire
The Inland Empire is the only area in California that more than quadrupled its solar power production from 2013 to 2018. Riverside and San Bernardino counties accounted for most of this growth. The area has seen exponential growth in the amount of solar power it’s producing in total, during the past six years. Much of this expansion can be credited to local legislators and politicians who have been pushing towards the common goal of 100% renewable energy within the next 20 years. There’s also been an influx of solar providers in Riverside who have sprung up to accommodate the city’s growing demand for solar installations.
In terms of per capita distribution, Honolulu is in the lead with an impressive 646 watts per resident. Despite not having a lot of land mass or a particularly massive population, the city of Honolulu was able to add more than 100 megawatts of solar panels during 2017 alone – a 20% increase in one year. This effort really illustrates just how fast urban planners can work with municipalities to achieve transformational results in very short time periods. If every city in America did what Honolulu has done, the carbon emissions reduction and positive environmental impact would be immense.
For a while, Phoenix was in the top three in terms of total power output potential. Despite falling to fifth place in the past year, the city remains one of the top in the country, with Arizona also being one of the leading solar producing states. Unfortunately, solar growth has somewhat slowed in this area due to legislation that has reduced the amount of net metering credits that solar system owners are able to earn for feeding their excess power back into the grid. The state also implemented demand charges that have made the cost of solar panels in Phoenix more prohibitive than they were before.
6. San Jose
San Jose was ranked in third place in terms of solar panels installed per capita in the US “Solar Star” ratings, which are derived from an annual survey of the solar output of America’s largest cities. The city produces 194 watts per resident, which is just behind San Diego’s 247 watts per person and Honolulu’s aforementioned 646 watts per person. The city receives roughly 300 days of sunshine every year and is considered to be the center of Silicon Valley, so it has always had the makings of a leading solar city with the right blend of technological advancement and ideal weather.
7. San Antonio
San Antonio has seen impressive growth in its solar industry during the past two years. During the 12-month span from 2017-2018, the city increased its solar power production by more than 37%. Overall, the city ranks in the number six spot in terms of total solar panels installed. However, reports indicate that San Antonio is just getting started, as the city could potentially produce more than 3,700 megawatts just by putting solar panels on all of the small rooftops, according to local property surveys.
8. New York City
The Governor of New York has set a goal to reach a solar power production of 6 GW by the end of 2025. While some critics have speculated that the goal won’t be met at the current pace, the city remains one of the top 10 overall producers of solar power in the country. However, an increase in growth is expected to happen during 2020, when a number of statewide initiatives and community projects will be put in place by regulators. New York is home to some of the largest urban planning projects ever carried out, so it won’t be surprising to see community solar projects that supply entire neighborhoods with energy in NYC. This consolidated and centralized approach may wind up setting the trend for future urban solar installations as opposed to the conventional approach of putting an installation on every roof.
Indianapolis has fostered a booming solar industry over the past 5 years, with the sector seeing a rapid rate of acceleration during the past 12 months. In May, officials announced that there will be a $175 million solar project carried out in central Indiana with the goal of covering more than 1,000 acres in solar panels. When the project is complete in 2023, it will generate enough energy to power more than 35,000 homes. This news came alongside the announcement that the county has also planned a $160 million ethanol-based fuel production plant and a $310 million food production facility.
The Denver Housing Authority recently won the Department of Energy’s ‘Solar in Your Community’ Challenge for constructing a 2-megawatt solar garden as part of the city’s Clean Affordable Renewable Energy (CARE) project, which is currently serving more than 500 homes within Denver county. Likewise, the state of Colorado has seen above average growth in the number of solar jobs that are appearing. Many people don’t realize that the metropolitan Denver area gets more than 300 sunny days per year and is statistically even sunnier than Miami and San Diego. Combine that with the city’s booming economy and you have a recipe for becoming one of the top 10 solar cites in America.
11. Las Vegas
The entire state of Nevada saw a downturn in solar installations from 2015-2018. However, recent legislation has re-introduced a more attractive net metering scheme that has propelled Las Vegas into the top 15 cities in the country in terms of total solar panels installed. Of course, Sin City uses quite a bit of electricity, so the percentage of overall power generated by solar is still relatively low and there is plenty of room for improvement. With the sun shining about 85% of the time throughout the year, Las Vegas is an optimal location for solar power harvesting on a scale that would interest urban planners within the context of developing community solar projects.
Sacramento is another Californian city that has seen tremendous solar growth in the past few years. In 2017, the Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) recorded the highest year on record for solar panel installations. As the capital of the first state to make solar panels mandatory on all newly built homes, Sacramento has had a long history of large solar panel projects. One of the earliest major projects introduced in the city was the 12,600-panel array installed at Depot Park back in 2011.
13. San Francisco
Back in April 2016, San Francisco was the first city to require that all new buildings less than 10 stories in height be outfitted with solar panels. The city continues to lead the Bay Area in total solar output capacity. Furthermore, the Golden Gate City has reduced its carbon footprint by more than 30% since 1990. By the end of 2019, the city’s municipal energy facilities will be generating up to 8.7 megawatts of solar energy. There are more than 20 mega solar arrays in the relatively small city, making it one of the most potent solar producers in terms of watts generated per square mile.
Florida installed the second-most solar panels last year behind only California. Along with that trend, solar-related jobs increased by more than 20%, with an estimated 10,350 solar jobs available in the state. Jacksonville has led the way in Florida’s solar efforts since 2010. There’s even a solar panel manufacturing plant located on the west side of the city. When fully operational, that plant will be able to build and distribute more than 1 million solar panels per year.
15. New Orleans
New Orleans has enacted a plan to install 90 megawatts of utility-scale solar power in the city before the end of 2020. Twenty of those megawatts will be coming from a $42 million array that will be installed at the NASA Michoud Assembly Facility. Another 50 megawatts will come from a purchase agreement that will facilitate a third-party development project in Washington Parish. The city leads the Deep South in solar production and is setting a much-needed example for a region that has otherwise been slow in its solar adoption. When the proposed project is complete, the city’s total solar production capacity will be between 100-130 megawatts. That amount of solar power could fulfill between 10%-13% of the city’s peak load.
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Every City Has an Abundance of Solar Power Potential
If you took any one of the cities above and covered just 25% of the land mass with solar panels, the generated energy would be enough to power the entire surrounding region. The number of homes that are currently equipped with solar panels throughout the U.S. sits at an average of less than 10%. At least 30 of the top solar cities in America could increase their solar production by 50 times before coming close to their solar power potential.
California’s goal is to ensure that all homes are eventually outfitted with solar power in the state. However, many urban planners are looking beyond the simple approach of just mounting solar panels on every rooftop and into the more revolutionary concept of constructing large solar farms that power city infrastructure such as traffic lights, street lights, office building electricity, waste management centers, and other municipal operations.