For economic, environmental, and cultural reasons, solar power has become a celebrated form of energy production in the United States. Harnessing the sun’s energy to power the country is sustainable, increasingly affordable, and harmless to the environment—which is why the federal government and renewable energy corporations have partnered with cities across the country to stimulate local economies, create jobs, and provide power to people across the country.
However, you can’t just put a solar power plant anywhere. Certain parts of the country are sunnier than others, and offer more power production potential. So where are the sunniest places in America?
Take a look at this Sunniest Cities In America List. Cities on this list aren’t just great places to get a tan and enjoy the weather—they have the potential to be home to some of the most efficient and powerful solar power plants in the nation, if they can handle the infrastructure and have the public, governmental, and financial support.
So how are cities on this list dealing with their solar development potential? Have they already made great strides to take advantage of all that sunshine, are they beginning to see the potential, or are they failing to take steps towards cleaner energy entirely?
Ultimately, it depends on the city. In this blog, the solar energy systems team at RGS Energy will take a look at four cities on the sunniest cities list that are particularly interesting in terms of how they’re living up to their solar energy production potential. These cities are great examples of solar power at its best, solar power in the making, and solar power that may never come to fruition because of outside societal factors. To understand the present state and future vision of solar energy production in the US, you must understand the cities across America that make it happen. Let’s take a look.
1. Yuma, Arizona
Solar Development: HIGH
Welcome to the sunniest place in America! Known for its rich western history and starkly beautiful desert landscape, Yuma County sits in the far southwest corner of Arizona near the US-Mexico border, and is known for having pure, unclouded sunshine 90 percent of the time! There’s plenty of open space out in the desert, too, which is why Yuma has become a leader in US solar power development.
Leave it to the United States to build things at massive scales. In 2012, The United States Department of Energy (DOE) in collaboration with plant owner and solar developer NRG Energy launched Agua Caliente—the largest photovoltaic solar plant in the world—in the barren desert of Yuma County. This plant generates 290 megawatts of solar energy for Yuma County as well as residents of southern California through a 25-year purchase agreement.
Agua Caliente is a great example of the potential that large-scale solar power plants have in the United States. With enough sun, open space, and financial support from local/state/federal governments, solar power can effectively change how energy is generated and create a smooth transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy in the long run. We have to give credit where it’s due—props to the federal government and RGS energy for bringing solar power to a place where it makes the most sense.
6. El Paso, Texas
Solar Development: MEDIUM
El Paso is about as far west as you can get in the state of Texas, and it’s tucked right next to Juarez and the US-Mexico border. While it usually isn’t known for its solar power production—El Paso has the largest military training center in the nation, and a vast federal government presence—the PSEG El Paso Solar Energy Center is one of the largest solar power plants in the state, and is a big reason why Texas is the largest energy provider and energy exporter in the US. Did we mention it’s the sixth sunniest place in the US, with sunshine roughly 84 percent of the time?
We rank El Paso as “medium” in terms of solar development—not because it fails to live up to its potential in terms of solar energy production, but because the sky’s the limit when it comes to West Texas and renewable energy. Energy companies and industry thought leaders all agree: Texas has the most solar and wind energy potential in the United States. It has more than enough space to implement large-scale infrastructure, plenty of sunshine (four Texas cities make the top 20 on the sunniest cities list), and the economy and public support to make it all happen. While traditional energy production is a massive part of Texas’s culture and economy, it still has the room and the potential to bring more renewable energy into the fold, and retain its spot as the nation’s largest energy producer for decades and even centuries to come.
Where does El Paso fit this picture? While there’s urban sprawl stretching southwest across the border, east-northeast of El Paso is begging for solar development: it has all the sunshine you need, and a whole lot of nothing for miles and miles.
22. Grand Junction, Colorado
Solar Development: LOW
Located directly between Denver and Salt Lake on Interstate 70 in Colorado, Grand Junction is known for peaches, wine, outdoor adventures, and plenty of sunlight—it’s sunny 71 percent of the time (just as sunny as Honolulu and sunnier than San Diego). But because of a mix of economic problems and strong community support for the fossil fuel industry, solar hasn’t taken hold in the area quite yet.
Grand Junction has been hard-hit economically over the years. An overnight oil shale bust in the early 1980s—known as “Black Sunday” to locals— was devastating to the local economy, as Exxon left the area in order to sustain company profits shortly after promising the Western Slope and America with “energy independence.” While oil shale and natural gas returned the area to economic boom status for most of the 2000s, 2008 marked an economic downturn that saw a dip in natural gas and oil shale prices, and lifted the unemployment rate from 3 percent to 9.1 percent (above the state average of 7.8 percent) in just two or three years. With an increasing number of traditional energy employees out of work and increasing trouble supporting large businesses or even small, main street ones, Grand Junction could certainly use an economic boost that lowers unemployment and stimulates growth throughout the community.
In terms of solar production, Grand Junction has some interest on a residential level. Many middle-class and upper-middle class residents take advantage of GJ’s self-proclaimed “300 days of sunshine” to trim down their energy bills and power their homes. However, Grand Junction hasn’t done too much exploration into solar energy production on a mass level. While there is a hybrid power plant in the area, but other than that, the area relies on the boom-or-bust fossil fuel industry that’s currently on the bust side of things. With all that open space and all those sunny days, the Western Slope has the basic solar blueprint it needs to provide added stability to its economy and prosperity to its residents.
40. Cheyenne, Wyoming
Solar Development: LOW
Wind and solar power often go well together—especially in places like Wyoming. With upwards of six peak sunshine hours per day and plenty of wind at night, the solar/wind combination has potential to create a 24-hour cycle of renewable energy production, and even keep a steady stream of power production through the less sunny and more windy winter months.
The potential for solar and renewable energy is present in places like Cheyenne—the state’s fast-growing capitol city—which has plenty of wide open spaces and cheap land that could be a great spot for solar power production. With commercial development surging along the Interstate 25 corridor from Cheyenne all the way down the Pueblo, Colorado (which happens to rank at no. 13 on the sunniest cities list), Cheyenne has an opportunity to produce renewable energy for a large portion of Wyoming’s small population, as well as for cities and towns in Colorado along the corridor, such as Fort Collins, Colorado Springs, and Denver.
However, Wyoming has a very complex relationship with renewable energy, especially in contrast to the fossil fuel industry’s influence in the state. Wyoming produces more energy than every other state in the nation besides Texas, and it has the largest production-to-consumption ratio in the US. Wyoming’s energy production comes largely from coal—the state has three of the ten largest coal deposits in the world, which provide a livelihood for a surprisingly large percentage of Wyoming residents, and carry a great deal of power and influence when it comes the present and future plans for energy in the state. People in Wyoming love coal, whether it be community members, power companies, or politicians.
Solar power and renewable energy in general have a long way to go in the state of Wyoming, and some would argue they have no place to go at this point. In early 2017, Wyoming’s legislature considered a bill that would essentially outlaw renewable energy sources in the state—and more bills and discussion will soon follow. The original bill suggested that electric power could only be generated by six approved sources: oil, natural gas, nuclear power, hydropower, and of course, coal. The bill, if passed, would also charge a $10 per megawatt hour penalty on any renewable energy produced in the state for state residents.
Ultimately, Wyoming is one of the most coal-friendly states in the nation, and a great deal of money and power in the state stems from coal. The potential for solar and wind power is exceptional in Wyoming, but its people, politicians, and powerful men seem to have no interest in tapping into that potential.
This is particularly troubling for places like Cheyenne, which have so much potential for not just solar, but wind energy. Cheyenne ranks at no. 40 on the sunniest cities in America list—and it’s one of the 10 windiest cities in America.
What does this mean for solar energy production?
The potential of solar energy is certainly a national issue in the United States, and even an international one as of late. With a president that preaches nationalism and promotes economic and energy independence from other nations, more and more Americans are discussing the ways that the country can generate more of its own power, and, perhaps out of alignment with the president’s values, the ways to innovate and become a world leader in renewable energy production.
The United States government (and Americans in general) prefer to see their country as a world leader in just about everything—but as far as solar energy production goes, the US sits behind China, Japan, and Germany respectively in terms of overall solar energy production as of 2016, and doesn’t even crack the top 15 in terms of solar energy production per capita.
If the goal is to increase solar energy production—to become a world leader in clean energy production and potentially the manufacturing of solar energy components—then the United States will have to make more of an aggressive investment along those lines, and find ways to generate more solar power. That means America’s sunniest cities must do their part.