By Bob Uphues
The village of Brookfield has joined a small cadre of Illinois municipalities officially designated "solar-friendly" communities. On Jan. 5, the village was notified it had been designated as a SolSmart community for enacting policies that support installation of solar energy projects.
SolSmart is a U.S. Department of Energy program managed by the International City/County Management Association and the Solar Foundation. The village of Brookfield applied for designation as a SolSmart community through the Metropolitan Mayors Caucus, a consortium that includes 275 Chicago-area municipal members.
Brookfield is the only community to receive SolSmart designation in the western Cook County Region and is just one of 11 SolSmart towns in the state of Illinois. SolSmart encourages local governments to enact policies that promote solar development, streamline their approval and increase local solar investment.
The village was designated a "bronze" level community, the lowest of the three ratings SolSmart confers. It recognizes steps the village has taken toward emphasizing sustainable development.
For example the village in 2016 signed on to the Metropolitan Mayors Caucus' Greenest Region Compact 2, has strengthened laws regarding storm water runoff and has started emphasizing a desire for denser transit-oriented development to promote use of public transportation and by creating pedestrian friendly commercial districts.
The village's Station Area Zoning District code includes solar projects as something developers can do by right, without seeking any special permitting.
"It's not just symbolic," said Nicholas Greifer, the village of Brookfield's director of community and economic development. "This is really impactful."
Scott Sanders, whose company BrightLeaf Homes specializes in sustainable development, said the village's steps to promote solar energy is welcome.
"I think it can only be a good thing for the village," said Sanders, whose projects all include a solar energy component. "If the village can encourage it via easier permitting, that's fantastic."
In the past three years or so, Brookfield has seen about a half dozen solar panel installations – three of them on newly constructed BrightLeaf homes.
"Costs are coming down for the hardware," said Greifer, though President Donald Trump just last week imposed new tariffs on solar panels made outside of the U.S. "Solar projects are becoming more affordable. They're not just for environmentally motivated homeowners who have extra money."
According to the SolSmart website, the program also can provide no-cost technical assistance "to evaluate local programs and practices that impact solar markets and identify high-prospect opportunities for improvement."
Greifer said that he may suggest the village explore permit fee levels to see if there may be ways to incentivize solar projects in the future.
"Speaking for myself, I want to have a discussion to learn if there's any interest in lower costs for that," Greifer said.
The Metropolitan Mayors Caucus is planning to hold a press conference in early February to officially announce the newest SolSmart designees.