In 2007 and 2008, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) selected 25 major U.S. cities as Solar America Cities, the foundation of DOE’s Solar America Communities program. Through this effort, these cities worked to accelerate the adoption of solar energy technologies for a cleaner, more secure energy future. These unique federal-local partnerships enabled the Department of Energy to identify barriers to solar energy use in diverse locations and at various stages of market development, and to collaboratively develop solutions to those barriers.

The City of Milwaukee formed Milwaukee Shines in 2008 when the City was named one of these 25 Solar America Cities by the U.S. Department of Energy, and earned the distinction again in 2009. The City’s goals as a Solar America City were to:

  • Increase installations
  • Increase installers
  • Reduce cost of solar
  • Support manufacturing

Since then, Milwaukee Shines streamlined the City’s solar permitting process, created a solar zoning ordinance, and developed financing resources for home and business owners in Milwaukee. Now, more than 1.5 MW of solar energy is being produced in Milwaukee, which has exceeded the goal of 1 MW of solar capacity. To date, the City has invested in 12 renewable energy projects, including solar electric, solar hot water, and a wind turbine.

In 2012, Milwaukee Shines was also named a partner on the DOE SunShot Program’s Rooftop Solar Challenge team and worked to reduce the soft costs of solar in the City.

Approach

Expedited Permit Process

The City of Milwaukee hosted a stakeholder meeting with City staff, inspectors, utility representatives, local installers and solar industry professionals to map out the typical process of attaining a permit for solar PV in the City of Milwaukee. They gathered input from all parties about things that desired outcomes and challenges that were encountered with the goal of creating a map that illustrated the permit process and to determine the requirements for an expedited solar permit. View the City of Milwaukee’s Solar Electric Permit Process here.

Based on the feedback from the stakeholder meeting, it was determined that the City could help clarify the permitting process and track the growth of solar in Milwaukee with an expedited solar permit. In certain cases, a solar project in the City of Milwaukee may be eligible for an expedited solar permit. If the project meets the following criteria, the expedited permit can be used which takes the place of the electric and building permits.

  • Solar electric (PV) system of less than 10 kilowatts
  • 1 or 2 family dwelling
  • Solar panels are flush-mounted on the roof
  • Total load is less than 5 pounds per square foot

Milwaukee’s expedited solar permit also reduced the cost of permit requirements. The Expedited Solar Permit is a flat fee of $70. In the past, a residential installation would be required to get an electric permit (could be around $100) as well as a building permit. The cost of a building permit is determined by the cost of the building project, so getting a building permit could prove very expensive for a larger residential project. Not only is the flat fee a cost saver, the permit can be issued in one day – which is a time saver for installers.

A worksheet was created to help installers determine if a planned project meets the City’s requirements. If all requirements are met, the expedited permit can be used. The permit is completed and submitted by the installer to the City of Milwaukee’s Department of City Development (DCD) and the permit may be approved as quickly as the same day if it is brought in-person to the office. Special considerations are required for placement of solar installations on historic properties. Please refer to the Historic Preservation Certificate of Appropriateness worksheet.

This expedited permit also helps the City of Milwaukee’s Assessor, as DCD can provide a list of solar installation projects to ensure the property’s assessed value is not increases because of the solar (Wisconsin provides for a property tax exemption).

Solar Zoning

The City of Milwaukee passed its first solar zoning ordinance in 2012. The ordinance was drafted and passed on the existing Wisconsin State Statute 66.0401 that limits the authority to restrict a homeowner or business owner’s right to install solar.

Adding a solar zoning ordinance in the City of Milwaukee’s code of ordinances has helped to educate staff and community, as well as alleviate any potential conflicts or confusion when a homeowner is preparing to install solar on his or her roof. Solar zoning ordinances can also aid city staff when processing permits or doing field inspections.

Solar Financing

In 2008, Milwaukee’s Common Council accepted the Solar America Cities grant, which included tasks creating solar project financing options for City residents. In early 2010, the Milwaukee Common Council approved the Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) ordinance, which would allow the financing of solar to be added to property tax assessments. However, in mid-2010, the Federal Housing Finance Agency, which oversees mortgage finance giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, raised concerns with residential PACE programs. While some municipalities continued to navigate legal hurdles to try to established a publicly-funded PACE financing program, City of Milwaukee’s solar program Milwaukee Shines partnered with the private financing sector, and introduced the Milwaukee Shines Solar Financing Program.

The City of Milwaukee partnered with Summit Credit Union to offer low-interest solar loans to city residents. The City provided $100,000 in donated funds as a loan-loss reserve, and Summit leveraged those funds to offer $2 million in low-interest solar loans. Since being established in 2010, the Milwaukee Shines Solar Financing Program has provided over 30 loans to Milwaukee residents.

In addition, it was the City’s hope that the partnership with a credit union would encourage other private financial institutions. The Milwaukee Shines Solar Financing program is establishing a track record for solar loans, and it helps other banks and credit unions see the value of investing in clean energy in the community, to create a sustainable solar market in Milwaukee for the long term.

Additionally, Milwaukee Shines is offering Commercial PACE financing for solar projects on commercial buildings in Milwaukee. Through its partnership with Milwaukee Energy Efficiency program, Milwaukee Shines can help businesses add solar and implement other energy-savings initiatives by adding the cost of financing to the property tax bill.

Accomplishments

  • Created an expedited solar permit. Qualifying residential installations can get a flat-fee permit within one day.
  • Passed a solar zoning ordinance that clearly identifies the standards for residential and commercial building owners.
  • Trained fire fighters, permit staff and inspectors in solar technologies.
  • Worked with local non-profits and neighborhood associations to run various neighborhood solar group buy programs resulting in nearly 250 kW of installed solar in the City.
  • Developed a unique solar loan program with a local credit union in order to offer low-interest loans that could be used for equipment, labor and permits (electrical, plumbing and building), and interconnection fees directly related to the solar installation. Structural re-enforcement and re-roofing expenses can be included in loan, so long as there is an eligible solar project included in the loan.

Lessons Learned

When developing or improving municipal solar processes, include all departments at the outset. Departments and staff related to historic preservation, permitting, forestry, and assessments all have a stake in the outcome. This is an opportunity to start with a Solar 101 discussion, highlighting topics such as how the technology works, how many people have solar in your community (and what the expected growth is), and why items like permitting and zoning are important to solar market development.

  1. Use partnerships. Instead of trying to create a new infrastructure and capacity to handle a residential loan program within city government, Milwaukee Shines went into the private sector. By offering solar loans through a credit union, they were able to do it faster and more efficient, resulting in a better product for the customer (which is the end goal). Additionally, the City could not have created or conducted Milwaukee’s Solar Group Buy programs without non-profit and community organizations like MREA and RCA.
  2. Identify internal solar experts. Even if a municipality puts information, checklists and details online, there will always be questions. To help a solar market develop, identify someone that can answer questions from homeowners as well as installers related to solar. This could be someone in permitting, inspection, or administration. There should be a live-person that a resident can speak with to get information on solar.

Involved Parties 

  • City of Milwaukee Office of Environmental Sustainability
    Matthew Howard, Sustainability Director |
  • City of Milwaukee Development Center
    Suzanne Hanson, Operations Manager | Suzanne.Hanson@milwaukee.gov
  • Midwest Renewable Energy Association
    Nick Hylla, Director |
  • Summit Credit Union – Wendy Rohr