As a growing mountain county in Utah’s Wasatch Mountain Range, Summit County is a community with a long heritage of both self-reliance and sustainability. The sustainability vision in the county dates back to 1974, when the Summit County Council adopted an energy conservation resolution. Fast forward to the 21st century, and sustainability and renewable energy continue to be championed by county leaders and residents alike, as evidenced by development of both a Sustainability Plan (2011) and Climate Action Plan (2015). Solar energy development emerged in these planning processes as a leading path to achieving county goals of a more renewable, independent source of energy. Summit County’s commitment to advancing solar energy is evidenced by operating a successful community solar program, installing solar on county buildings and streamlining the solar permitting process. These actions–among several others—led to Summit County being recognized as a national solar leader by achieving the SolSmart Bronze designation in February 2017.
Led by a passionate group of community members and supported by local government, Summit Community Solar (SCS) was a successful community solar initiative that launched in 2013. Designed to increase residential photovoltaic (PV) solar in Summit County, this grassroots initiative combined a robust community engagement and outreach effort with both the financial benefits of bulk solar purchasing and the ease of contractor pre-selection. After initial success and increasing interest, the rebranded Mountain Town Community Solar (MTCS) program succeeded SCS in 2016. Summit County and the town of Park City, in partnership with regional nonprofit Utah Clean Energy, have supported operational funding for both programs.
The strategic vision behind the SCS and MTCS community solar programs was to increase the interest and commitment of residents to go solar through a citizen-driven solar outreach campaign, consisting of a public workshop series and distribution of educational resources. Through the bulk purchasing discount arrangements— roughly 30-35% less than the national average residential solar price—an even greater incentive for a ‘neighbor-to-neighbor’ peer marketing network was created because the shared one-set price of each solar installation decreased as the number of homeowners participating increased. Couple this with the fact that just 4kW of solar can cut the average Utah homeowner’s energy costs in half, the prospect of substantial yearly energy savings emerged as an extremely attractive incentive for residents in Summit County.
SIMPLIFY & STREAMLINE
To help simplify the solar process, program leaders launched a competitive bidding process and selected Alpenglow Solar to serve as the pre-selected contractor for its solar streamlining initiative. This saved homeowners from the often-confusing and burdensome process of bidding and selecting the appropriate solar contractor on their own. Summit County helped further streamline the process in 2013 by expediting the permitting process and waiving permitting fees for all residential and business solar systems. This, combined with in-depth solar plan review training for county staff, led to approvals for as many as seven solar permits in just one hour, per Summit County Sustainability Manager Lisa Yoder. Summit County also created a user-friendly one-stop webpage containing comprehensive information on the county solar installation processes, which remains useful for both interested residents and solar contractors, alike.
SELF-RELIANT SOLAR LEADER
In addition to encouraging residential solar growth and staying true to its community heritage, Summit County has sought to lead by example by installing solar energy systems on county buildings. In 2013, the county partnered with Rocky Mountain Power to install a 71 kW of solar on the county health department building. This solar array is now producing about 250 kwh of energy per day and providing one-third of the building’s total electric supply. The county ”brought renewable energy to life” by installing a real-time, digital information kiosk in the health center lobby to directly track solar energy being generated.
Building upon this project, Summit County furthered its commitment to renewable energy and overall energy cost reduction by installing a 220kW solar system on the Summit County Justice Center in 2015. As is the case with the county health center, this new array will generate 310,000 kWh of energy each year and is now accounting for one-fourth of the building’s total energy usage. A total of four more solar arrays are in the pipeline to be installed on county buildings through 2019, totaling an additional 207 kW of solar capacity.
This case study originally appeared in the NACo publication “Thinking SolSmart: County Strategies for Advancing Solar Deployment.“