Over 300 SolSmart Communities in 40 states are utilizing solar energy to help reduce carbon emissions and lower energy costs.
South Bend, IN – Elkhart County, Marshall County, and the City of Plymouth have now met national benchmarks for encouraging the growth of solar energy and removing barriers to solar market development. All three communities have received SolSmart Gold designation, the highest level that can be earned. They join over 300 cities, towns, and counties across the country including the City of Goshen, City of Nappanee, and City of South Bend who were designated in 2017.
Led by The Solar Foundation and the International City/County Management Association, and funded by the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Energy Technologies Office, SolSmart helps local governments make it faster, easier, and more affordable to go solar. The program launched in 2016 and has now achieved its goal of designating at least 300 communities as SolSmart Gold, Silver, or Bronze, with designees in 40 states and the District of Columbia. Through the SolSmart program, these communities received no-cost technical assistance and national recognition for their bold actions to advance solar energy locally.
All three new MACOG designees were recognized for having efficient permitting and inspection processes, providing information online, and training staff on the codes related to solar energy. Both Marshall County and the City of Plymouth have been leaders in online permitting since 2013 and the SolSmart designation recognizes their effective and efficient permitting process. The SolSmart program has helped clarify and complete the process in obtaining permits for solar systems. Marshall County and Plymouth earned a Special Recognition Award for earning over 60% of the available points in both the Inspection and Permitting criteria categories and Elkhart County received the award for the Inspection category.
The SolSmart process also emphasizes training related to the technology, for inspectors, permitting staff, and fire departments. Elkhart County and the City of Plymouth encouraged local fire departments to take training to understand the technology.
Plymouth Mayor Mark Senter emphasized, "Our fire fighters are now more prepared, should they need to respond to a fire where solar panels are present." Marshall County’s Building Commissioner Chuck DeWitt added, “The training that we received with the solar experts has helped us tremendously in identifying installation issues, code violations while we are doing our permitting, and inspections.”
The City of Plymouth and Marshall County assisted in expanding the Solarize initiative into rural and smaller communities, and educational workshops were held in Plymouth, Culver and Argos. Plymouth Mayor Mark Senter shared, "It makes sense to give people access to information to provide greater choice about where their energy comes from, how much they pay on their utility bills, and to make it easier to do so." The City of Plymouth was also recognized for leasing underutilized land at their municipal airport for a solar array as part of NIPSCO’s Feed-in Tariff program.
Zoning code amendments were made or proposed in all three communities to clarify the requirements for solar energy systems. Plymouth and Marshall County reduced zoning barriers for roof-mounted projects by permitting them by-right in all zoning districts regardless of size. Doug Powers, a Planner with Elkhart County said, "We look forward to public participation in the process of amending the zoning code for solar to make it easier to install small ground mounted projects on parcels over 3 acres, while balancing that with the interests of adjacent landowners."
The City of Plymouth and Marshall County accepted their award at the Solarize workshop in the Town of Argos. The Elkhart County Commissioners will accept their award at an upcoming Commissioners meeting.
The SolSmart designees include cities, counties, small towns, and regional organizations in 40 states and the District of Columbia, representing 82 million people. One in four people in America now live in a SolSmart-designated community. All designees have met national criteria to prove they have streamlined local procedures to make it easier for homes and businesses to install solar energy systems.
The actions that SolSmart communities have taken help reduce soft costs, which are the non-hardware costs that today represent roughly 65% of the cost of solar installations. SolSmart helps local governments streamline permit approvals, review planning and zoning guidelines, facilitate group purchase campaigns, and improve solar financing options. Taken together, these actions help lower the overall costs of solar installations and allow the solar industry to expand more rapidly nationwide.