City Climate Corner

Zoning for Solar

Episode Summary

How do you make sure your city's zoning isn't unintentionally slowing down residential solar and ideally encouraging equitable solar development? And for communities with farmland or less developed areas, how do you proactively guide larger scale solar to maximize benefits to the community? We interview Brian Ross, Vice President of Renewable Energy at the Great Plains Institute, and learn about these and many more solar related zoning and permitting issues.

Episode Notes

How do you make sure your city's zoning isn't unintentionally slowing down residential solar and ideally encouraging equitable solar development? And for communities with farmland or less developed areas, how do you proactively guide larger scale solar  to maximize benefits to the community? We interview Brian Ross, Vice President of Renewable Energy at the Great Plains Institute, and learn about these and many more solar related zoning and permitting issues.


Episode Transcription


Abby Finis  00:02

Cities produce more than sixty percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Big cities get a lot of attention, but most household emissions in the US actually come from communities outside urban cores, making them critical players in climate mitigation and climate justice. City Climate Corner explores how these small- and mid-sized cities are tackling climate change and moving toward an equitable and sustainable future. I'm Abby Finis.

Larry Kraft  00:23

And, I'm Larry Kraft. We're co-hosts for City Climate Corner. Hey, Abby.

Abby Finis  00:31

Hey, Larry.

Larry Kraft  00:33

So we have a fully adopted, signed Inflation Reduction Act, don't we? 

Abby Finis  00:41

Yeah, we do. 

Larry Kraft  00:42

I think we're going to be talking to him about solar today, but what are some of the things you're seeing in this IRA?

Abby Finis  00:48

I think that the kind of main reaction is relief. And is it the perfect bill? It's not the perfect bill. And in fact, there's some things that seem counter active to some of the other pieces. So there is a fair amount of funding for environmental justice communities for reducing pollution and in communities. But there's also funding for oil leases, and different things that will have adverse impacts on some of these communities. 

Abby Finis  01:16

And so I just want to acknowledge that it's not a perfect bill, but it is pretty monumental in consideration of any federal climate legislation that we've had in the past in terms of its spending on clean energy, updating the grid, and electrification and being very intentional about focusing dollars in communities with lower income and communities that have been harmed by pollution. That have been harmed by freeways running through them, those kinds of things. All in all, I think the main thing is to take what we can and to ensure that we're avoiding some of those adverse impacts and maximizing those positive benefits and communities.

Larry Kraft  01:57

I agree with, it's not perfect, but relative to where we were, it's pretty darn good that it gets us in the game, right? And it's roughly on the scale where we have a shot at what we need to achieve.

Abby Finis  02:09

Yeah, and I think some of the biggest opportunities come from the funding that allows us to clean the grid and to electrify our homes. Because if we can reduce the demand for natural gas, if we can reduce the demand for oil in our cars, and you know, there's incentives for electrifying those as well and reducing VMT through some other means, if we can really, really put a dent in that, then maybe we can avoid some of these other damages. 

Abby Finis  02:36

There's tons of rebates and tax credits that are available for electrification and a lot to boost the decarbonisation of the grid as well. And so it just really makes sense for people to be able to move off of natural gas appliances to cleaner electricity appliances, thinking about Ithica a lot. 

Larry Kraft  02:56


Abby Finis  02:57

And now I see Menlo Park has entered an agreement with black power to electrify homes and businesses in their community as well.

Larry Kraft  03:04

Yeah, that was super exciting to see. Go back and listen to the Ithaca episode. We didn't know at the time, it was black power that was partnered with Ithaca and now to see Menlo Park, who we did an episode with on micro grids. Also now getting the game. They're super exciting.

Abby Finis  03:20

Yeah. So I think that those opportunities are going to be there. And it's really important to take advantage of that. That's going to be through a lot of education and putting information out on your city websites, and just getting in touch with folks and making sure that they know that those opportunities are available to them. And then, you know, if you're able to develop these programs, like Ithica in Menlo Park are developing and go out and really try to transform your community and take advantage of these incentives. 

Abby Finis  03:50

The other piece of it, I saw the energy innovation put out some modeling that said that this funding will help to clean the grid 75 to 85% by 2030, which is huge, obviously, for the benefits of electrification. A lot of that is going to be probably utility scale, but there's going to be a lot that's going to come from distributed energy as well. So excited to see those solar tax credits restored back to the 30% level. So that will help continue to boost solar, which is clearly a growing industry and providing a lot of jobs. So you gotta be ready for the solar boom to come.

Larry Kraft  04:27

Right. Does that mean like that city planners need to be really ready for that?

Abby Finis  04:32

City planners permitting officials need to be ready for that yeah. We spoke with IREC a couple episodes ago about the SolSmart program. And one of the aspects or two of them really are looking at your zoning and looking at your permitting, and today we're gonna focus a bit on the zoning and how there may be unintended barriers to adding solar in your community that you can fix through some zoning changes as well as what some of those additional benefits are to having solar in your community.

Larry Kraft  05:02

Sounds great. And we are talking to Brian Ross. 

Abby Finis  05:06

Yeah, my buddy, Brian. Brian, and I go way back, and we're happy to have him on the show. 

Larry Kraft  05:10

Let's do it. 

Start of interview

Abby Finis  05:11

Let's do it. Today we're speaking with Brian Ross, Vice President of renewable energy at the Great Plains Institute. Welcome to City Climate Corner.

Brian Ross  05:23

Well, thank you for letting me participate.

Abby Finis  05:26

Why don't you start by introducing yourself? And maybe you want to start with the early days of pushing planners to think about energy and the evolution that you've seen over your career.

Brian Ross  05:37

Oh, you mean back when I was a voice in the wilderness decades ago on to integrate energy and urban planning? I've been trying to do this for a number of decades. And in the early days as an urban planner, trying to help communities recognize that they had a role to play in energy efficiency and renewable energy development. And in the way our nation's energy portfolio was shaped really was a heavy lift. It's not something that people who work at the local level really thought about. All the regulatory apparatus around energy is at the state level, and on the federal level. And energy planning is done by utilities, not by cities. And that was always a difficult thing to get to cities to adopt the perspective that they had actually something to do, and that they actually had a real interest in it that just like any other kind of infrastructure, energy infrastructure was critical to community goals, and development goals. 

Brian Ross  06:31

And just like any other service that is provided by cities, energy is pretty critical to the health and well being of the community and economic development. A lot of the work I did was on traditional urban planning, and then trying to convince people that they needed to incorporate energy into it. And usually they gave me a deer in the headlights look, every time I would ask for it. And say, How about energy? Sometimes I managed to get a few things in the policies or in the comprehensive plan, and sometimes not. Until it was an early 2000s when I was helping on a visioning session with a comprehensive plan, and someone said, Well, what about energy, and I remember, I gave them this deer in the headlights look, and the person started to explain to me why that was important to local governments, because I obviously didn't understand. 

Brian Ross  07:19

I was just shocked, of course, that somebody had actually raised it before I had, we had a very productive conversation with that community, about what could happen at the local level, for addressing issues of energy and issues of climate in that particular comprehensive planning process in that community. But that was actually the start, I discovered that shortly thereafter, they became more and more common, that people were actually willing to embrace the idea that perhaps there was a local role to play in energy. 

Brian Ross  07:48

I think we've come a long ways. It's only been though, in the last, probably five years, that we've really seen this explosion of communities that are really interested in taking charge of energy in their communities. And we have seen from that point where it was hard to get people to even address energy at all, to the point where we're at now, where cities are actually the Climate Leaders in terms of setting goals. The most aggressive climate goals in the nation are being set by communities, they are the ones pushing the states, they are the ones pushing the utilities, they are the ones pushing the federal government. 

Brian Ross  08:23

It is an opportunity we have now and I think a transformative perspective that actually the states need to take rather than trying to bring communities along rather than having to convince cities that they need to adopt the state's goals. They need to look to cities as the vector for change. This is the way we are going to ultimately transform our states and ultimately our nation in our climate crisis that we have found ourselves in. So that's my story of moving from the point where energy was the orphan to being where energy I think now is one of the primary things that many communities are looking at. And recognizing that this is really a way forward of necessity for the kind of health and well being of both their people and their local economies.

Zoning and Solar

Abby Finis  09:09

This is the point maybe if you're listening to grab a coffee or a nodos, because we're going to talk about zoning. But I've known Brian for a while. And he's one of the most fascinated or excited about zoning people that I know. And so I think actually, you'll be interested. Let's just start with a basic overview of zoning. We have a number of listeners who are students or residents who want to understand better how they can work with their city to drive climate action. Can you give us a very simple 101 on zoning?

Brian Ross  09:43

Yeah, well, that's a dangerous question as you just noted to ask me because I could use up the rest of the time just talking about zoning 101. I always have to tell the anecdote as I would go a number of years ago when we were trying to promote solar energy or wind energy and I would talk to a lot of advocates. First thing I would do is in a roomful of people, I'd say, Who here wants to make solar energy a meaningful part of our nation's energy portfolio? And everyone would jump up and cheer, Yes. And I say, Okay, now who wants to talk about zoning. And everyone would sit down except for maybe like three people. And I was like, oh, there now there's my peeps, there's my people. 

Brian Ross  10:17

Zoning is actually one of those really boring things that actually really makes a difference. We use the term zoning, we're actually talking about a portfolio of tools that local governments have around land use and development. It isn't always technically zoning, there's a set of tools that is really about the way that we as communities develop and the way we implement our priorities in development. Zoning is one of those things that has been around for a long time, and is considered to be a basic function of local government. How do we shape our communities in terms of the way that development occurs, both the things that we want to see occur, and even the things sometimes we don't want to see occur? How do we regulate them in such a way as to minimize risks, and maximize opportunities for the rest of our community? 

Brian Ross  11:01

The zoning is really about balancing between different priorities in the community. There's always the case where somebody wants to do something with their property and zoning is restricting them. And they talk about how zoning is a barrier to economic development. And then you have their neighbor, who doesn't want that thing to be developed. And it's talking about how zoning is not preventing the bad thing from happening, which is what the other guy wants to develop. 

Brian Ross  11:28

We look at zoning in a couple of different categories. There's basic zoning elements, that kind of thing that almost every community does. And then there are more advanced zoning elements, which are things that you can choose to do if you want to use certain tools. And the basic tools of zoning are things like density. What is the density that you want to see develop? What are the lat dimensions? You know, those are things like setback requirements and height standards, and then probably the most important one is use. And that is, what kind of land uses are you going to allow for or promote in certain parts of the community? 

Brian Ross  12:04

It's in places like use that, that we've actually seen some of the unfortunate consequences of zoning, where things like redlining got incorporated into the zoning regulations. We have a long history, unfortunately, history of zoning, where there were communities that were zoned single family, not because of maybe the reasons that were put on the table, but in order to keep the wrong people out of their neighborhood. But we're hopefully are starting to get through some of those things on that use standard and allow for a mix of uses. Because we recognize that from a climate standpoint, especially a mix of uses in a given district is something that is highly desirable. 

Brian Ross  12:40

We have use dimensional standards and intensity or density. And then when you look beyond that, there's all kinds of extra things that you can do like design standards, or you can promote certain kinds of combinations of uses, in your standards, you can do environmental regulation in certain ways is to make sure that you're getting environmental benefits, and restoring systems that may have been degraded in your community. And those are all advanced zoning techniques. 

Brian Ross  13:06

So when we talk about solar zoning, we look first at those basic elements. Are you allowing for solar land uses? And then the second is, how are your dimensional standards affecting the ability of people to use or not use their solar resource on their property? And then the third one is on intensity or density, how do you integrate solar land uses with other kinds of land uses in a way that meets the community standards that you're trying to get to, and enable the private market to work in a predictable and transparent way in order to make sure that things like solar energy can actually get built in your community? I don't know. Was that 101 enough for you is that?

Abby Finis  13:47

I think so, I think everybody just got a credit.

Zoning barriers to solar

Larry Kraft  13:51

I will tell you, three plus years ago, before I was on city council, I would have been reaching for the coffee right about now. But I'm telling you now, oh my gosh, zoning is so and the broader practices that are within that category are huge. Let's talk about solar and barriers that you often see created in zoning to solar adoption. So what are some of the barriers that you've seen? And how can cities do better or moving them and enabling solar creating more enabling language?

Brian Ross  14:25

Many people say what on earth does zoning have to do with solar development? And the first thing is because solar is a different kind of land use, we have frequently seen inadvertent barriers being built into zoning ordinances that do in fact, restrict solar. The first one in simplest one goes back to that concept of use. Typically, zoning ordinances don't mention solar. Why would they because hardly anybody ever did solar. And silence is a barrier. So one of the first things that we'd say to communities when we look at their zoning ordinances for rooftop solar is to just make sure that they explicitly allow it in their community, because virtually every single lot in the community has a solar resource somewhere. 

Brian Ross  15:11

If you think of solar resources in the same way that you would other kinds of energy like oil, what if you discovered oil on your home's lot, maybe you'd want to find a way to take advantage of that it has economic value, well, there is that kind of a resource on your lot. And it's solar energy. And you can value it in the same way and measure it in the same way that you would other kinds of traditional fossil fuel resources kind of in the sense of a reserve. And people who have an energy reserve on their property are eventually going to want to tap into that, especially if they can do so without disturbing the rest of the land uses on their lot. 

Brian Ross  15:44

You can harvest your solar reserve on your residential lot from your roof, you don't have to put up an oil derrick, you don't have to disturb anything other than put something on top of the building that's already there. The other element that we see in terms of barriers are standards that would prevent, for instance, someone from putting up a solar array in a backyard. We frequently will see limitations that say you can have two accessory uses on your residential lot is kind of standard zoning language a lot of communities will use, and they already have a detached garage, and then something else on the lot that also counts accessory. And so therefore they're precluded from doing that. 

Brian Ross  16:26

Similarly, there are things like height standards and setback standards can get in the way of solar, especially when you want to look to where the solar resource is because people have trees on their lots or in their neighbor's lots. And trees are a good thing. But trees and solar don't work very well together. And sometimes you need to look to see where the solar resource is on the lot. And to make sure that you're allowing development to occur in that location. You don't want to encourage people to cut down trees in order to get to their solar resource. Because urban forests are good things. They have their own environmental value. They have their own value to climate. And so we want to encourage those things to be coincident, rather than Debbie and conflict.

Larry Kraft  17:06

So talk to me. Accessory use versus principal use is accessory only when it happens, like and my property when I'm doing it in addition to living there and versus principal use, is that the way that works?

Brian Ross  17:21

That's the way it works. Yes. And accessory use is something that is in addition to the main use on the lot. Most zoning ordinances do have some flexibility around accessory uses about what is what is counted and what isn't counted. But principle use is a lot more restrictive in terms of the way that most zoning ordinances work. If a use is not explicitly named in the zoning ordinance, it is forbidden. So if you don't explicitly say in a given district, that solar gardens are a permitted or conditional use, then it is forbidden. 

Brian Ross  17:59

That is a barrier that we see very frequently, because most zoning ordinances have not built in solar into their community standards. And indeed, you don't want to see principle solar land uses everywhere. And that's the kind of decisions that we try to encourage communities to make proactively rather than waiting until there's a proposal on the table. And someone is asking for a rezoning and the creation of a text amendment in the zoning ordinance in order to allow something that will likely be controversial, you'd rather have that happen ahead of time, before the actual proposal, determine where you want to see these kinds of solar developments and where you would not like to see them. It provides direction in the marketplace.

Larry Kraft  18:40

That makes sense then, as opposed to being reactive, and having to do a variance or change to have a counselor or a staff think in advance. Okay, in these four areas of the city we want to explicitly permit solar gardens, for example.

Brian Ross  18:56

Yeah, that's correct. And years ago, we used to talk about this with wind energy, people would say, well, we want to allow for wind energy in our community. In fact, I believe I some years back actually worked with the city of St. Louis Park on this, where we said, Where do you want to allow 100 foot towers, and in those places, maybe you want to allow wind. That's the kind of use decision that had to be made. Solar is a lot easier. We actually say with solar, that the correct and preferred best practice is to simply say in your ordinance, rooftop solar arrays are permitted accessory uses in every district in which buildings are allowed. It's a simple statement, and it clears the way for that to move forward. And there's no ambiguity about it.

Larry Kraft  19:42

I wasn't part of those discussions, but it'd be tough to get council in St. Louis Park to say we can put 100 foot towers pretty much anywhere in the community because we're pretty fully built out. 

Larry Kraft  19:53

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Zoning and solar farms

Abby Finis  20:10

I think that this is a really important conversation for those larger developments too. And as we're seeing a ton more solar development and solar development in the queue for going on the the transmission side, these larger solar farms, we're also seeing siting challenges because cities, communities, towns, haven't thought through what they want. And all of a sudden developers show up in their community and tell them what they want. What are some of those challenges that you're seeing and how to communities address that upfront?

Brian Ross  20:39

We are seeing a lot of communities wrestling with these issues in a reactive manner, where they have not proactively thought about where they might want to see these things go. Things like solar gardens, so solar garden being a principal use, right, the only use on the lot, and it could be any variety of sizes, anywhere from you know, half an acre up to dependent on the community, you know, 20 or 30 acres. Those kinds of principal use solar installations, unfortunately, have been primarily zoned reactively. In the heat of an argument. 

Brian Ross  21:12

As someone who works with the solar industry quite frequently, they are in essential private markets tool for us to achieve our solar deployment goals. But they are self interested like any other kind of developer. The kind of barriers that we frequently will see is that the developer will choose the place because they have an eerie connection point. And they have a willing landowner. That's not always where the communities want to see these things move forward. 

Brian Ross  21:12

One of the transformative things that we've seen in the new world of energy is that the historic energy system was centralized. But the new energy system is decentralized. It used to be we had a few places that we would say we're hosting the energy system, right? It was where there was a coal mine, or a natural gas field, or a centralized generating plant using fossil fuel resources. There were a few communities that were kind of the host communities for that system, and everyone else was just receiving the energy from those kinds of institutions and infrastructure. 

Brian Ross  22:18

But the energy system of the future is distributed. Every community is a host community, especially when we talk about solar energy. There is no place in the country where there is not a solar energy resource or solar energy reserves that are economically viable for use. And so thinking ahead, and understanding where you want to see this kind of development occur is the same like any other kind of development. Where do you want to see housing in your community. Where do you want to see commercial development? Where do you want to see solar energy development? The barriers that we see are that those decisions are not being made ahead of time, and the host community doesn't understand how they need to regulate that solar development in order to make sure that they're benefiting from it. But still to allow it to move forward in a way to actually let property owners capture their solar reserves and the economic value associated with it. 

Brian Ross  23:12

We have seen communities that have put separations up between community solar gardens. One that we've seen frequently occur is, if you have a solar garden goes in, you can't have another solar garden within a mile of that location. That is trying to regulate the visual impact of the community character impacts. But what it does is it means that you're going to be putting solar gardens in places that may not be appropriate for solar gardens. If you're a farming community, you would ideally like to put the solar gardens in places where the prime farm soils are not. But that doesn't mean that you're gonna get spots like that conveniently located a mile apart. You want to look to the resource and see where it is that makes the most sense for your community. 

Brian Ross  23:55

Arbitrary limits like that are probably a bad idea. We actually have opportunities to do solar development in ways that actually benefit communities, for instance, through the incorporation of habitat friendly ground cover, where you actually take a piece of land that may have been farmed, and it may be not ideal farm soils. You can put a solar garden on that and you're going to harvest a much more lucrative crop, which is the solar energy. And you can also put habitat friendly ground cover on that and turn it into pollinator habitat or small game habitat that can provide a substantial benefit habitat wise. And in terms of the ecosystem services to the community. It can also do things like mitigate for water quality impacts that you might have seen before by infiltrating stormwater rather than having a runoff over the ground and bringing sediment into the streams and rivers and lakes in your community.

Model Solar Ordinances

Abby Finis  24:48

I'm glad you bring that up. We do want to get into those co-benefits a little bit more deeply in the next question. But before we do that, are there any model ordinances or language out there that cities could look to to replicate in their communities?

Brian Ross  25:01

While somebody ought to develop something. Yes, there are a number of model ordinances that have been developed. Great Plains Institute has developed actually several, one from Minnesota that was last updated about a year and a half ago with the latest best practices that we've been incorporating. There are also model ordinances for other states that we've developed. We have looked at probably five or six states in the Midwest, as well as a few states outside of the Midwest. And then there are model ordinances as well that have been developed by others. A number of very good ones, New York, North Carolina has one. And the model ordinances I will say, are a portfolio of concepts that you can select from. It's not like you have to adopt the model as it's written. In fact, that would probably be a bad idea, since it almost always has to be adapted to your particular community. 

Brian Ross  25:50

But what we did try to provide in those model ordinances is a cohesive and internally consistent set of regulations around solar that provides an example for people of how they can adopt zoning language that would enable the private sector market to do the deployment that is necessary for their community to meet its own energy goals and its own climate goals. And not every tool that's in those is appropriate for the community. 

Brian Ross  26:18

When we did try to provide some guidance on that, for instance, I was talking a minute ago about solar gardens and Farmland Protection. We do have some examples for language on how to integrate solar into agriculture in your community. But the main standard is, is that if you're not regulating farmland for other kinds of development, then you probably shouldn't be doing it for solar development. If you're not concerned about how housing is going to be replacing farming, why are you concerned about how solar will be replacing farmland? Farmland Protection is a great thing. But don't be arbitrary about it. And we have actually seen a couple of court cases where a community that did not regulate agriculture or farmland, in terms of protection didn't protect farmland in its ordinances or in its policies, but chose to do so for solar had those decisions struck down by the courts as arbitrary and capricious. 

Brian Ross  27:13

The court said, You're not preventing housing on farmland, you're not preventing commercial development on farmland, you're not preventing anything else on farmland. Why are you trying to regulate solar? Because of its farmland impacts. It was obvious that it was being selected out because of the land use rather than because of the Farmland Protection. But there are a number of communities that do in fact, regulate the how development occurs on farmland. And if they do so then they need to look at how they want to do that also for solar, and we'll provide some tools for that.

Solar co-benefits

Larry Kraft  27:44

Well, we hinted at this before, there are other benefits to solar than just clean energy are there not? Can you discuss some of those and how they might influence the development of solar in the community and fitting in with the community's priorities?

Brian Ross  27:58

That's a big part of the work that we do now. We call it the co benefits approach to solar development. If you do something in your community that protects your watersheds, or protects your streams, if it creates habitat, if it diversifies farm income and enables your agricultural base to thrive, and it also happens to be solar, doesn't matter that it's solar. Sometimes the co benefit is actually more important to the community than the solar development is. And you as a community can choose to have those benefits and incorporate them into your zoning in order to make sure that you as a host of the New Energy System, are actually making sure that your community is benefiting in a way that is going to provide not just tax base, but other kinds of benefits to your community. 

Brian Ross  28:45

The kind of things that we see most frequently talked about in terms of co benefits are the ones that I mentioned earlier, which are incorporating habitat deliberately into the development process. Addressing water quality in a deliberative manner, and then incorporating solar into your agricultural protection concepts. We have seen many cases where solar development has actually enabled a farmer to diversify their income stream in such a way as to improve their economic viability for the rest of the farming operation. Because selling energy is a very different commodity market than selling corn or soybeans or dairy or whatever your agricultural operation may be. It provides that diversity in that different income stream. That's a good thing and a co benefit to the community. 

Brian Ross  29:39

Similarly, we have seen in some places where the rural watersheds that streams and rivers and lakes are so important in Minnesota have been degraded over time. But one thing that we've actually found is that if you diversify your landscape and include some solar, you can actually make those watershed functions work better if you're appropriately citing and designing those solar gardens or solar farms into your landscape in a way that deliberately incorporates those co benefits. 

Brian Ross  30:09

The runoff from stormwater from agricultural lands is substantially higher in almost every case than the runoff from a solar farm that has inappropriate ground cover on it that has been established and maintained over time. The water will infiltrate into the ground, rather than running off, you'll decrease sedimentation. And sometimes that's the direct financial benefit of the community, when you can actually avoid having to do things like other kinds of stormwater mitigation elsewhere, because of the permits that you as a community have to get from the state or from the EPA. 

Brian Ross  30:47

We've also seen some examples where communities are looking into using solar as a replacement for agriculture on top of wellhead recharge areas, where we have a lot of drinking water in the Midwest here that is contaminated with nitrates. And one of the reasons for that is that the places where the groundwater is recharged is prime farmland. And if it's prime farmland, somebody's farming it. And if somebody's farming it, they're probably applying some kind of a nitrogen fertilizer to it, which is a direct vector into contamination for the drinking water. 

Brian Ross  31:21

It's better for those lands to be taken out of production, but they're private. And you can't just tell the landowner that you can't farm that anymore, because you don't have any economic use. If you put it into solar, they actually get a better return on their land than they would have if it was in corn. The community benefits by having a safer drinking water supply, and sometimes can actually avoid millions of dollars worth of nitrate treatment that would otherwise be needed in order to clean that up. 

Brian Ross  31:51

Out in California in the San Joaquin Valley, they have a water crisis. And those areas are irrigated farmland. And so they're actually looking at replacing the farmed areas with solar for the co benefit, basically, of stopping those lands from being irrigated and saving water. The actual community benefit in this case is they have more water to use where they want and where it makes more sense, while the private landowners who had that farmland now have an alternative use that it provides them with an economic return, so they don't have to irrigate that land in order to get a return on it. 

Solar benefits and equity

Larry Kraft  32:30

Interesting. Hey, how can communities ensure that solar development, and some of these additional benefits you've been mentioning are equitable, regardless of income?

Brian Ross  32:42

We have a lot of discussions about how we use the solar development process. How do we create wealth and who's benefiting from it? When we talk about co benefits, how are we making sure that those co benefits are flowing to everybody? The optimal way to really get to equity in solar development is probably in the distributed system where you're talking about making sure that there's opportunities of all income levels and of all cultural backgrounds to do things like direct installations on their housing, and reaping the benefits from that way, but also the job creation that occurs within those communities as you enable those markets to move forward. 

Brian Ross  33:22

I think that the city of Minneapolis has a great example where they are simultaneously encouraging rooftop solar and commercial solar, while they're simultaneously providing job training benefits to allow for people who live in those neighborhoods, and particularly those who live in underrepresented neighborhoods, to actually become trained in the facilities that are being developed there and developed the job skills, which is an expanding industry. If you have skills as a solar installer, you are probably guaranteed a job almost wherever you go. But unless we deliberately create a connection between where we have disadvantage, and where we have under-representation and the kind of capital that's flowing to these solar developments, we're not going to capture those equity benefits. The market won't give us equity. That's one thing we know pretty clearly is that the system is not geared right now in our market to deliver equity in the development process. 

Brian Ross  34:25

Another way that people have talked about creating some equity in solar development is to make sure that community solar gardens, which are that one way to have solar development that is not on site, work for the benefit of people in apartment buildings, for instance, or in low income neighborhoods is to have that solar garden subscription service where people can buy and participate in the solar development process and directly benefit from lower cost energy. Even though they can't do it on their own rooftop. But again, that has to be deliberately designed into the process. 

Brian Ross  35:00

Unfortunately, in Minnesota, we do not have a requirement that community solar gardens have to participate in that kind of inequity process, like they do in several other states. The state of Colorado, for instance, requires that community solar gardens actually have to have a residential and many times a low income element in the solar garden subscription. And they found some fairly creative ways to do this, such as tying solar garden subscriptions, and the energy that's going to that to Section Eight housing or something like that, where you're making sure that those benefits and the security of a long term energy source are flowing to the people who would most benefit from an equity standpoint.


Abby Finis  35:43

Well, you have shared a wealth of information today. But if you were to give advice, both to cities that want to bring more solar development into their communities, as well as those that maybe feel overburdened by development that's coming into their community, what advice would you give them?

Brian Ross  36:00

Oh, so you asked me two questions. The wrong thing to do. With the advice is, I've already stated this, but I should probably finish with it, which is that solar is the least expensive way to generate electricity in the nation. And it is a decentralized source. Everybody owns a piece. And what you should do as a community is to enable people to have that piece and to benefit from it in a way that is going to also benefit the community. What was the second question you asked? 

Abby Finis  36:29

The communities that are kind of overburdened by development coming down. 

Brian Ross  36:33

Communities that feel overburdened. The important thing is, and we've encountered this in several other places, is many times you feel overburdened, because you're seeing something that's new. I recently looked at a community where they were very concerned about how much solar was replacing existing farmland. But when the careful analysis was done in this community, it turned out that twice as much farmland had been used for housing, than for solar. 

Brian Ross  37:02

It is a matter of perception. When a new house goes in, hardly anybody gives it a thought. When a solar garden goes in, people say, well, that's new that looks different. They feel like they are being overburdened. The work that's been done in terms of looking at those development processes is that solar is actually not overburdening really any community except in a few limited cases. But it is important to recognize that feeling of being overburdened is still a legitimate thing for the community to address, and to say, how can we ensure that people can use their solar resource in a way that's responsible, while also mitigating for the impact that surrounding neighbors might feel that they have to bear? And our model ordinance provides some examples for how you might mitigate that.

Larry Kraft  37:54

Great, we're gonna share that model ordinance, aren't we?

Abby Finis  37:58

We are. Well, thank you so much for joining us and sharing that information. And we'll be sure to link the resources to this episode as well.

Larry Kraft  38:07

Thanks, Brian.

Abby and Larry debrief

Abby Finis  38:11

All right, Larry, what do you think?

Larry Kraft  38:13

Yeah, well, you know, one thing that struck me was when Brian was talking about how long he's been slogging away, trying to get energy planning in local government, and made me realize that, since my involvement in local government, it hasn't been a question whether we would be talking about energy that's wasn't a big deal. And just realizing that I'm standing on shoulders of others that had been doing things for a while, so just appreciative of that kind of work.

Abby Finis  38:45

Yeah, I've known Brian for a while now since about 2009, when I was in grad school and reached out to him for an informational interview. Because while I was in school for urban planning, and took a course on energy and policy, I think I talked about this before, and saw that crossover between urban planning and energy, and really thought that I was this pioneer in this space, which is like, no, no. 

Abby Finis  39:11

People who have been here have been here before you and so it was really awesome to be able to use his work in some of my projects through school and then to meet up with him and have an informational interview and have that progress into a mentorship and eventually colleagues, for sure. There are people out there who have been doing this work and they haven't had movement. They haven't had movement. And now here we finally are where it's it's not fast enough still. But man, is it an area that's exploding. Kudos to everybody who's been in the trenches for a long time.

Larry Kraft  39:46

Yeah, I thought, you know, the point he made that cities are now where it's at in terms of climate leadership, where you're finding the most aggressive goals, pushing utilities the hardest, and that states now need to look to cities more as the I think he said the vectors of chang. One of our prior episodes, someone said, states are the laboratories so the cities must be the petri dishes or something along those lines. Well, cities are really out pushing.

Abby Finis  40:16

Yeah, the cities are also the subjects in this experiment that we're playing with by emitting greenhouse gases. They're the ones being hit. 

Larry Kraft  40:25


Abby Finis  40:25

And it gets really real with extreme weather events and how that affects local communities. So they're on the front lines, and they're seeing it. And so that I think, is part of the reason why cities are leading is because they're most directly impacted by climate change. 

Larry Kraft  40:42

Yeah, that's a really good point.

Abby Finis  40:44

You know, I think the meat of the conversation that we're talking about and zoning and the power that cities can have through regulation can really swing a couple of different ways that can be very beneficial in having regulation that enables climate friendly action that enables solar that makes more walkable spaces. Versus Brian brought up redlining or zoning and having centralized power plants that are right next to low income communities of color. These are conscious decisions. 

Abby Finis  41:18

Zoning is not something that we think about very much at all as normal residents of the city, but it is something that is really important to understand a little bit more and be involved in these processes and think about how decisions around zoning and other regulations have impacted people's lives in your community or could impact people's lives in your community.

Larry Kraft  41:39

Yeah, as I joined city council, I knew very little about zoning. And as I learn more, and then learn the historical basis for zoning, and then you come in with a set of assumptions of well, this is how it's always been done. Well, no, it's not how things have always been done, and you can make changes to it. And you can do things to really encourage more transit oriented development or all kinds of things that are good for the climate and overtime better for how we live our lives.

Abby Finis  42:12

Yeah, and Brian was talking about the co benefits. And he does like to emphasize that and sometimes they're the front end benefits. Just thinking about what are all the additional benefits that clean energy can bring, solar in particular, to water quality, pollinator habitat, you know, there's just a number of things that go along with this. Using these tools to create more livable better cities are critical both to climate effort, but also just everyday quality of life and environmental health of communities. 

Abby Finis  42:52

We hope you enjoyed this episode of City Climate Corner. If you like what you're hearing, make sure to subscribe and give us a review. If you're able, become a monthly supporter through Patreon. As always, you can find more information on this topic and resources from each episode's guests on our webpage If you have an idea for the show, send us an email at or find us on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.

Larry Kraft  43:16

City Climate Corner is produced by Abby Finis and me, Larry Kraft. Edited by me. Our production assistant is Maggie Morin. Music by …

Abby Finis  43:24

King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard. 

Larry Kraft  43:27

Thanks for listening and we'll see you next time!