Encouraging Rooftop Solar

Case study: Chapel Hill, North Carolina
By: Clark Henry

The International City/County Management Association’s (ICMA – icma.org) mission is to create excellence in local governance by developing and fostering professional management to build better communities.

ICMA identifies leading practices to address the needs of local governments and professionals serving communities globally. With 9,000 members, we provide services, research, publications, data and information, peer and results-oriented assistance, and training and professional development to thousands of city, town, and county leaders and other individuals and organizations throughout the world. ICMA and the Environmental Center for Arab Towns recently signed a partnership agreement, which we pledge to share knowledge, expertise and best practice about creating more sustainable communities. For more information about ICMA, please contact Laura Hagg, Director, Middle East and Africa programs, lhagg@icma.org. The article “Encouraging Rooftop

Solar” was published in the May 2015 issue of PM Magazine, © ICMA. Used by permission.

Chapel Hill is located in the Piedmont region of North Carolina, one of three local governments that constitute the “corners” of the Research Triangle, and is home to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC).

More than 57,000 people reside in Chapel Hill’s 21 square miles. The town operates under a council-manager form of government and employs 912 staff. It maintains a vibrant small-town feeling with a strong university presence known for its artistic contributions as much as for its academic achievements.

Building on a tradition of leadership, Chapel Hill is using solar photovoltaic (PV) to improve its environmental and economic performance on public facilities.

Establishing Standards And Removing Barriers

Chapel Hill is using its comprehensive plan to outline expectations for new development and redevelopment projects to incorporate renewable energy, including rooftop solar PV. In 2001, the town council approved a resolution that amended the plan’s energy efficiency policy, establishing the expectation that private sector rezoning applicants will maximize their potential for energy conservation and use of renewable energy.

This expectation was expanded in 2007 to include the specific goal of a “20 percent more energy efficient” feature in private sector conditional use or rezoning applicants’ development plans.1

The Chapel Hill 2020 Comprehensive Plan, adopted in 2012, was built around a framework of six core themes, each of which is supported by a series of goals. One theme, Nurturing Our Community, describes the town’s goals for living in harmony with and improving the natural environment.

One goal, for example, is to “reduce the carbon footprint of all town-owned or managed services and properties; . . . require that all new development meets standards; and . . . support its residents in minimizing their personal footprints.”2

One barrier that the town addressed up-front was the potential for neighborhood or homeowners’ association covenants to restrict or prohibit solar PV. In 2003, the town adopted a land use management ordinance that includes prohibitions against

covenants or other conditions of sale that restrict or prohibit the use, installation, or maintenance of solar-collection devices. This ordinance was adopted prior to North Carolina’s statewide solar access law GS 160A-201, and is believed to provide stronger protection for solar energy.

Embracing Sustainability

In addition to policies and program participation, the town’s commitments led to the creation of the Office of Sustainability in 2008 to facilitate community and business participation in sustainability-oriented programs and resources. Established by Town Manager Roger Stancil in response to the council’s interest in achieving greater organizational and community sustainability, the office was created to help implement, coordinate, and advance many of the policies and initiatives that predated it.

Recognizing that renewable energy is, in and of itself, a substantial topic deserving full-time attention, in 2012 the Office of Sustainability created an energy management specialist staff position focused exclusively on finding energy efficiency and renewable energy opportunities for public operations, including solar PV.

And specific to solar PV, the office provides general guidance to the community regarding an incentive created through state legislation in 1977 that allows for a personal tax credit of up to 35 percent of the cost of a solar PV installation ($10,500 ceiling) for businesses as well as single and multifamily residences.

Looking Beyond Grant Funding
Chapel Hill is working to increase its capacity to integrate solar PV into public operations. Recent facility expansion and construction has included solar PV, not as an ornamental feature funded by sources of capital with limited availability (short-lived grants), but as a fundamental component of the facility’s function whose costs are covered by such replicable, reliable, and familiar sources of funding as bonds. Public bonds provide more local discretion over the schedule, eligible uses, and procurement processes than federal grant programs. Using resources derived and controlled locally underscores the feasibility and practicality of solar PV for public operations. Chapel Hill is working to ensure the viability of solar PV for integration into ongoing operations and regular installations, as illustrated by the following examples.
Library Expansion.

In 2003, residents voted in favor of a $16.3 million bond measure to expand the existing public library from 27,000 to 62,000 square feet. In the process, they added 4 kilowatts (kW) of solar energy through rooftop solar panels tied directly into the electrical grid.

The town estimates that this investment provides the grid with renewable energy sufficient to offset the energy demand of the library’s floor lamps. This project benefits from having a high profile as it demonstrates the benefits of solar PV to the most visited library in North Carolina.3

Town Operations Center.

In 2007, Chapel Hill finished construction on its new operations center as a consolidated home to the public works and transportation departments. With 36 PV panels generating 15 kW, the investment reduces the facility’s power demand by about 1.5 kW per day.

When it was built, it was the largest capital improvement project in the town’s history, at more than 80 acres and $52 million.4 Solar PV complements other renewable energy systems used by the new facility, including solar thermal hot water and ground-source heat pumps.

Solar Pv Growth

The town’s dedication to creating a more sustainable Chapel Hill by advancing solar PV has led to its participation in national and international programs that provide technical guidance, inspiration, and recognition. By making formal commitments in partnership with strategic stakeholders, the town sets a high bar for its own performance, leverages additional resources, and paves the way for further progress. Chapel Hill participates in the ICLEI - Local Governments for Sustainability’s Cities for Climate Protection campaign; the Community Carbon Reduction pledge sponsored by Low Carbon Innovation Centre of the University of East Anglia; and the Sierra Club “Cool Cities” initiative in an effort to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions.

Chapel Hill’s Chamber of Commerce also created Green Plus in partnership with UNC to provide small and midsize businesses with expertise, resources, and recognition for their efforts to increase their environmental, social, and economic performance.

While the programs are not specific to solar PV, they provide a working structure in which solar PV plays an important role.
Lessons Learned

Here are two reminders from the Chapel Hill case study:

Build internal capacity.

long-lasting solar PV outcomes. Including renewable energy in public improvements funded through bond measures resulted in solar PV being installed on the main public library and town operations center. Further, building capacity through staff dedicated to energy provides continuity for identifying opportunities to facilitate solar PV.

Take the long view.

Chapel Hill’s successes are the result of ongoing efforts to amend policy, planning, investment, and public operations over the long term. Short-term initiatives will result in limited returns on that investment. As such, Chapel Hill is working to establish innovative models for financing solar PV that build on earlier success.


  • Memorandum from Roger L. Stancil to J. B. Culpepper, “Expansion of the Policy to Encourage Renewable Energy Planning with Rezoning Applications and Accompanying Special Use Permits,” April 11, 2007,http://townhall.townofchapelhill.org/agendas/2007/04/11/10.
  • 2020 Chapel Hill: Our Town, Our Vision (June 25, 2012), 37,http://www.townofchapelhill.org/home/showdocument?id=15213.
  • The library serves more than 1,035 visitors daily and 375,000 people annually; see Town of Chapel Hill, “Library Expansion,” http://www.townofchapelhill.org/town-hall/departments-services/business-management/capital-improvements-program/library-expansion.
  • Town of Chapel Hill, “Town Operations Center,” http://townhall.townofchapelhill.org/news/current_issues/toc.

Solar Partnerships

This article was prepared by the SunShot Solar Outreach Partnership, a U.S. Department of Energy program providing outreach, training, and technical assistance to local governments to help them address key barriers to installing solar energy systems in their communities.

For More Information

John Richardson, Sustainability Officer, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, 919-969-5075, (jrichardson@townofchapelhill.org) and Katie Shepherd, North Carolina GreenPower, 919-857-9026, (kshepherd@ncgreenpower.org).

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