Solar energy is booming in America’s cities.
The United States now has more than 121 gigawatts of solar energy capacity installed, according to a new report, which is enough to power more than 23 million homes. The amount of solar installed in the top nine cities combined is higher today than the entire country 10 years ago.
The report from nonprofit Environment America and research firm Frontier Group found that out of 56 cities surveyed, 15 reported a tenfold increase in their solar capacity — the maximum amount of energy that could be generated from solar — between 2014 and 2022.
Honolulu is leading the way in solar capacity per person, followed by Las Vegas and San Diego, the report shows.
But it’s not just the sunniest cities that have embraced the solar revolution, according to Johanna Neumann, senior director for Environment America’s Campaign for 100% Renewable Energy. Cities like Portland, Oregon, and Buffalo, New York — places you might not associate with sunshine — had 50 to 100 watts of solar power per person by the end of 2021.
“One of the most critical things on this report is that solar power can meet our needs anywhere,” Neumann told CNN. In the report, “you find cities leading the way on solar, even in the rainy Pacific Northwest or in the snowy Northeast. And the truth is the sun shines down on every city in America, and regardless of how sunny it is, any city can position itself to harvest that abundant, free, non-polluting solar power if they adopt pro-solar policies.”
Top solar cities in the US
When the groups published their first solar report in 2014, only eight cities had at least 50 watts of solar per person installed.
“When I think back to when we first released [this report], solar energy was still in the cradle; it was in its infancy in the United States,” Neumann said. “And now, this report really just shows how far major cities have come to tapping the immense power of the sun.”
Honolulu — the country’s top solar generator — has 1,133 watts of solar capacity installed per person, which is equivalent to more than three solar panels for each person in the city. Neumann said that in 2014, the scale of Honolulu’s current solar deployment was a “pipe dream” for US cities.
Edwin Cowen, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Cornell University, said it is “impressive how geographically distributed” the cities with the most solar capacity are.
“We expect Honolulu to have high installed levels due to high electric costs and plentiful sun, but that Burlington, Vermont, is on the list demonstrates that this is a technology for every city and every state,” Cowen, who was not involved with the report, told CNN.
Cities — home to more than half of the world’s population — are integral to tackling the climate crisis in part because of the potential to derive a significant amount of their energy from solar power. A recent UN climate change report concluded that electricity generated from wind and solar are now cheaper in many places than power sourced from coal, oil and gas.
The report also compared solar capacity in cities by regions. Some Midwestern cities are starting to emerge, with just under 25 watts of solar capacity per person installed. In the last two years, cities like Oklahoma City, Columbus and Memphis have worked their way up in the rankings.
“This underscores the fact that it’s not the amount of solar that hits your city, it’s the political leadership to put in place policies to allow people to harness the power of the sun,” Neumann said.
The recent growth in solar energy has been in large part due to favorable public policies. Government tax credits for renewable energy greatly incentivized solar deployment. Solar power also makes financial sense for many homeowners and businesses; when coupled with battery storage, generating your own solar power can protect you from the variable pricing of fossil fuel and power outages brought on by extreme weather.
Local initiatives, like allowing utilities to credit solar homeowners for supplying energy back to the grid, also contributed to the uptick in solar capacity. At the same time, the report notes that some states which have favored fossil fuel are rolling back these net-metering policies. The Florida legislature, for instance, recently passed a bill that would slash those financial benefits. That bill is pending Gov. Ron DeSantis’ signature or veto.
Cowen said the growth rate of solar has been roughly linear, although it has ticked up recently. But he said solar growth needs to be exponential.
“Given the geopolitical situation, Ukraine-Russia war, and the role fossil fuels have played currently and historically in geopolitical tensions, it is imperative that the US does all in its power to accelerate the transition to renewables,” he said. “The call for the continuation and expansion of financial support for solar energy, particularly the Solar Investment Tax Credit, is vital.”
Neumann described Americans as “energy hogs,” compared to the rest of the world, using more energy than necessary. Because of that, only by adopting strong policies to make it easy and affordable for utilities, businesses, and homeowners to shift to solar, she said, can the world make a dent to curbing the climate crisis and slashing fossil fuel pollution.
“We need solar power to continue expanding rapidly for the remainder of this decade, and we need other renewable energy sources like offshore wind to also come online at scale,” Neumann said. “Not only will we have cleaner air to breathe, healthier communities, but we also stand the best possible chance at keeping global temperatures to a level that will prevent the worst impacts of climate change. Growing clean energy needs to be a key part of that.”