by Eric Ginsburg

A resident-driven initiative to convince the city of Greensboro to develop a solar-energy plan has picked up momentum as the city tentatively embraces the idea and starts working with proponents on a specific plan.

Elaine Stover takes this kind of thing very seriously. There’s a full binder in front of her on the table at a neighborhood coffee shop, filled with an action plan and discarded draft proposals to city council, but she knows the material about solar power cold and mostly uses the material to visually aid her pitch.

It’s not surprising that she, like the other residents whom she corralled to embark on this effort, takes a meticulous and well crafted approach to tackle her goal of making Greensboro the most solarized city in the state. After all, she’s a veteran of this type of work.

Stover, who runs Green Schemes environmental consulting firm and formerly chaired Greensboro Beautiful, rallied members of the city’s Community Sustainability Council and others steeped in environmental work to the cause about a year ago. It began after she received an email from non-profit group Environment North Carolina that kick-started more extensive research on her part about how to convince the city to commit to a solar action plan.

She pulled together a small group, now known as Growing Solar, and the team started assembling ideas and a pitch for council. After talking with seven of the nine council members, Growing Solar’s work culminated in a presentation at a council work session on March 24, where Stover said council enthusiastically welcomed the idea of looking into the group’s suggestions.

Stover and her counterparts seek a public embrace and promotion of solar energy, the setting of a citywide solar goal, an analysis of how solar friendly the city is with regards to things like zoning and permitting and for the city manager to report back to council with an operational solar plan. Growing Solar initially considered more specific requests — listing benchmarks it would like to see hit and outlining a timeline, for example — but decided it would be best to pitch solar energy overall and work along city staff on specifics once council signaled its support.

To Joel Landau, who serves on the Community Sustainability Council, there are plenty of reasons to begin investing more in solar energy. He sees it as an outgrowth of the sustainability committee’s prior recommendations, and pointed to a spike in employment in the state’s solar industry in recent years. The number is currently around 5,600 people, he said.

“Solar jobs are local jobs,” Landau said. “There’s a lot of job potential here.”

Plus, he said, it would make a good tie-in to the city’s efforts to market itself, especially playing off the “green” in the Gate City’s name.

Stover argued that the iron is hot, with the cost of pursuing solar energy dropping 80 percent since 2008 and current federal and state incentives in place that may not always be around. There’s a bounty of free technical advice and some grants for this type of work too, she said, not to mention that Greensboro benefits from an average of 217 days of sunshine annually.

“Why wouldn’t you do this?” Stover asked, adding that the real question isn’t whether to pursue solar, but how and what is reasonable. “When villages of India can light their villages with solar, I figure Greensboro can do more.”

After the work session in March, the city formed a working group involving Stover, Landau and Bob Powell from the sustainability council as well as Energy & Sustainability Manager Stephen Randall, Community Planning Manager Hanna Cockburn and Senior Planner Jeff Sovich. It took almost a month for a meeting to happen, on April 17; Landau and Stover said they aren’t sure when they’ll be done hammering out specifics and ready to bring something back to council.

But there is progress on some of the details, according to a memo from Randall to Assistant City Manager David Parrish. First, the group had to pick which cities to compare Greensboro with and what metrics to use before reaching out to interview their counterparts elsewhere on the most successful strategies.

“In order to find reliable relevant data we decided to select kilowatts (kW) installed per capita as our primary metric for comparison,” Randall wrote. “We will include data to address cost effectiveness related to electric rates, local costs and incentives, relative regional solar production potential (kWh/kW ratios), and types of installations such as solar farms vs. residential rooftop units.”

Powell, a professor at NC A&T University, would work with his students to crunch data from an Environment North Carolina report, and Randall started to identify free training and technical assistance through the state’s Clean Energy Technology Center, he wrote.

There is no next meeting or regular schedule set yet, Stover said — they’ll regroup after people complete initial research that the team divided up. But work continues behind the scenes, she and Landau said, moving towards the goal of incremental, feasible guidelines that are “believable and doable” but also bold, as Stover put it.

The goal of being the best solar city in the state isn’t a low bar to set, Landau said; Raleigh is ranked considerably well nationally, and may be somewhere to look for guidance. But Landau and Stover have their sights aimed higher, at being the top city in the state as well as among the best in the country.

Even without a timeline, they hope to get there with a disciplined and deliberate approach, the kind of systematic and long-term strategy that they are already used to employing in efforts like this, strapped with handouts, a PowerPoint presentation and a binder.

[Photo: Joel Landau and Elaine Stover]

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