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The Metropolitan Mayors Caucus SolSmart cohort at the designation ceremony.

A SolSmart designation represents the hard work a community takes on to make solar energy accessible for more homes and businesses. In Illinois, the Metropolitan Mayors Caucus (MMC) multiplied this hard work by 15. This organization of Chicago-area communities advised 15 municipalities and counties and successfully led them all to Gold, Silver, or Bronze SolSmart designations. As of the spring of 2018, this represented the largest regional cohort of designees in the country, making Illinois tied with Colorado for the largest total number of SolSmart designations (18 total statewide).

MMC is focused on regional cooperation, which proved a successful framework for their SolSmart cohort. Collaboration and resource-sharing were key to the group’s success in bringing these communities together to make it faster, easier, and more affordable to go solar.

The Collaborative Approach

To start off the designation process, the MMC team, led by Edith Makra and Charles Dabah, set up bi-weekly phone calls with all communities. Initial conference calls focused on the foundational categories that every SolSmart community is required to complete. The first of these is permitting, and the second is planning, zoning, and development. For these categories, MMC put together a survey for each community to document their status at the start of the engagement process. “This gave us a baseline understanding of what each community was coming to the table with,” said Dabah, who is program assistant at MMC. Some communities started with a lot of solar work under their belts, and others came looking to learn and develop a plan. The community representatives themselves had a range of experiences. “In our group, we had a management analyst, an engineer, a retired fire chief, and several sustainability professionals,” recounts Dabah.

Jerry Nellesen, the community development director in Beach Park, Illinois, was already involved with MMC when Makra approached him about joining the cohort. Nellesen had watched the solar market expand in Beach Park and supported all methods of making the solar process easier and more accessible. “We thought that by promoting ourselves with the cohort and working toward the designation, we could better spread the word about solar opportunities in our community,” said Nellesen.

A rooftop residential solar installation in Schaumburg, Illinois.

In Schaumburg, Illinois, Martha Dooley, landscape, and sustainability planner, oversaw the rewriting the zoning code to create clear guidelines for solar that met her community’s goals and aesthetic standards. The Schaumburg team first wrote the solar code in 2009, and Dooley looked to incorporate changes that had been made to solar technology since that time. Using resources from The Solar Foundation, she developed a new code that was finalized in February 2016. It wasn’t until later that she decided to join the MMC cohort and pursue a full SolSmart designation. “Since we had already finished our code, we wanted to also make permitting easier to encourage deployment of solar in our community,” Dooley explained.

The collaborative framework worked well for both Nellesen and Dooley, who used the group conference calls to go through each element of the application. There was also a Dropbox system set up so that participating communities could share resources. “If we came up with something in Beach Park that worked for us, we were able to share it with the rest of the group via the Dropbox, ” explained Nellesen.

Managing 15 communities at once is no small feat, but Dabah said he would do it again. “There is a power to bringing together that many communities, and the ideas that are generated through that many minds.” If they worked with only one community, he explained, they wouldn’t have been able to generate the unique ideas that came out of working with a larger group. For Dabah, it was a good example of how the exchange of information and collaboration can help everyone in a group meet their goals.

The group also benefitted from the help and expertise of Zach Greene, SolSmart’s program director at The Solar Foundation, who participated in more technical aspects of the designation process. “Zach reviewed every community’s zoning code and made sure that they understood how to address barriers that could make solar less accessible in their communities,” explained Dabah.

In the end, Beach Park and Schaumburg achieved SolSmart Gold and Silver designations. Both communities made an online solar permitting checklist available for residents, allowed solar by-right in their zoning codes, trained permitting and inspection staff on solar, and created a streamlined process to approve solar permits more quickly. Schaumburg and Beach Park also received points for informing its residents of local incentives, solar installers, and financing options.

Schaumburg received 20 points in the Market Development & Finance category for installing solar on Hoover Math and Science Academy, a local high school. Beach Park gained 20 points for turning around permits for small PV systems in three days or less.

Well-Received Recognition

A ground-mounted residential solar installation in Beach Park, Illinois.

In Schaumburg, Dooley noted a positive community reaction to the designation. “Since we’ve published the press release about our SolSmart designation, we’ve had several new applications for solar rooftop units.” She mentioned that some applications were for commercial projects such as hotels, and others were for smaller residential systems. “I also received emails from residents who thought the designation was terrific, and that they were thinking about solar and benefitted from the new information posted on our website.”

The achievements of broader MMC cohort were positively received across the region, including by the industry’s leadership in Illinois. Lesley McCain, Executive Director of the Illinois Solar Energy Association, applauded the group for their efforts to streamline solar processes. “This will reduce the administrative costs of permitting and inspection, making solar energy more affordable, and assure solar industry standards are met,” she said.

Thanks to MMC and the communities who participated in the cohort, SolSmart has made a large impact in the Chicagoland area. Residents have access to new resources to simplify and speed up the process, and going solar is faster, easier, and more transparent than ever. “Before designation, putting solar on your roof seemed like a large and complicated project,” Dooley said. “Now, residents can contact the local government and receive necessary resources. SolSmart makes it much simpler for them.”