Story by Sara Carbone, CollectiveSun Content Marketing Manager
Everyone in the solar industry knows about the permitting problem. Permitting for a solar system brings a number of costs for residential and commercial installers. They come in the form of actual payments for the permit, inspection, and interconnection, in addition to the need to make physical trips for permitting and inspections and fill out and submit applications.
Local and state level permitting can have long wait times, cost a lot of money and include varying requirements. Larry Perea of Solar Smart Living reported that permitting in El Paso, TX costs about $100 a project, while it costs about $600 in Sunland Park, NM. Another company, SunLight Solar in Florida, stated that permitting for them sometimes means a four hour drive.
There is also a cost around customer satisfaction: customers get frustrated and pull out due to long government or utility approval times. According to SEIA this has led to a 5-10% client cancellation rate. Ultimately, the cost of permitting tacks on an estimated $7,000 ($1.00 per watt) to the price of a typical residential PV solar system.
COVID has changed how a number of processes are handled in the solar industry. State and regional mandates around social distancing and masking have impacted the approach to sales, the process of inspection and the procedures for the actual system installation. For some businesses and customers this has slowed down the permitting process even further.
For others it has meant an opportunity to streamline. Yann Brandt of Solar Wakeup told CollectiveSun that some building departments have digitized their processes fairly easily by using “email for permitting and FaceTime or Skype-type platforms to do a virtual walkthrough of a site with the contractor, and the inspector doesn’t actually have to drop by the site.” Moving the process online is an ideal solution during these times.
An Online Solution That Streamlines the Process
The Solar Automated Permit Processing or SolarAPP, a project led by the Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), is a platform meant to transform federal, state, and local solar permitting. SolarAPP is a permitting portal online that eligible rooftop residential solar and storage projects can use to instantly obtain permits. It has been in the works for the past year and is part of the DOE’s overall push to reduce the “soft costs” of solar technologies that make up a growing portion of installation costs even as equipment costs continue to drop. The solution is also meant as a way to mitigate the unprecedented challenges brought by the pandemic.
NREL has partnered with a coalition of organizations and industry experts to develop SolarAPP. They include local governments and companies such as safety science leader UL, the International Code Council, Tesla, and SunPower. One partner, sustainability think tank Rocky Mountain Institute, partnered with CollectiveSun to install a solar+storage system on their Colorado Innovation Center.
“When permitting and inspections are simplified and cost effective in a way that maintains safety and reliability, solar customers are happier and adoption rates go up.”
How It Works
SolarAPP will offer a flexible online PV-permitting tool for residential systems that standardizes the process and evaluates safety and code compliance. It will include features that address energy storage and potentially integrate other market segments in the future. The platform can function as an independent program or integrate with government software systems like Accela and OpenGov.
To ensure safety, the evaluation process for SolarAPP is being created in compliance with model codes such as the 2017 National Electrical Code. The system will prevent design errors, recognize noncompliances, and standardize application materials. It will also allow for no-touch approval of systems that are code-compliant.
For a standard price per application to cover O&M costs, contractors will be able to offer a simplified, lower cost permit process and overall installation cost to customers, something that can potentially lower customer cancellation rates for the overall industry. During a time when installers are conducting more business remotely, SolarAPP allows them to receive instant feedback and corrections online from the system without having to use the local permitting office as a source for quality assurance.
At no additional cost, it will provide Authorities Having Jurisdiction (AHJs) from 20,000 municipalities with a cheaper, more efficient way to manage permitting, inspection and compliance enforcement. This can be a boon for permitting offices struggling to meet the demand. “Many permitting officials are receiving 100 or more solar permit applications every week, with 45–90-minute review times per project. Automated review through SolarAPP can be a lifeline to overwhelmed staff,” said Jeff Cook, SolarAPP’s lead developer at NREL.
NREL also plans to publish data about nationwide permitting practices on the SolarAPP platform in an effort to help jurisdictions streamline their own processes. Cook notes, “a jurisdiction could look at their own processes…and look at a peer city…to see how they vary in terms of installed deployment data, jobs and permitting requirements to help them understand whether they might want to make changes based on that.” Finally, the SolarAPP site will include permitting and inspection best practices and a standardized inspection checklist.
Current Status of SolarAPP
NREL’s Jeff Cook recently told CollectiveSun that since December 2020 SolarAPP has been piloted in three AHJs: Pima County, AZ, Tucson, AZ and Pleasant Hill, CA. To date three cities and counties have collectively processed 32 solar projects through the program.
Officials with these pilot projects have positive things to say about the effort. Geoff Simmons, chief building official for Pleasant Hill, CA, said, “There has been such a good collaboration to create a different way to review these residential projects… We’re now able to move qualifying solar permits directly to field inspections, which is giving our staff much needed time to work on other, more complex projects.” Director of Pima County Development Services, Carla Blackwell said, “Offering our solar customers a way to self-permit expedites the process.”
The creators also have another 15 AHJs across CA, CO, AZ, TX, and MD in the adoption pipeline. NREL explained that they have run an estimated 30 permits/projects through SolarAPP and have an additional 30 projects going through in order to track program performance. They expect to transition away from pilots to widespread adoption in the early spring.
When permitting and inspections are simplified and cost effective in a way that maintains safety and reliability, solar customers are happier and adoption rates go up. This is always good news for solar contractors. Additionally, state and local governments enjoy greater flexibility and efficiency. As NREL’s Cook states, “The digital revolution is here! Importantly, every local government now has the opportunity to adopt SolarAPP and provide no-touch, instant solar permitting at this critical time during the COVID-19 pandemic.” As a key player in the digital revolutionization of the solar industry, SolarAPP will offer this kind of opportunity for all involved.