How Can We Reduce Solar Soft Costs? Part 1: Streamlining Permitting

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A PV Solar Report Series

 

It’s no news to anyone in the solar industry that although module costs have plummeted, soft costs for solar  — like permitting, installation, and customer acquisition — have remained high in the U.S. At over 50% of system costs, our soft costs are twice those in Germany.

 

We know what the issues are. But how do we bring down our soft costs and enable more people to go solar?

 

This series, based on sessions at Solar Power International 2013, sheds light on how we can reduce time and costs associated with solar permitting, installation, and customer acquisition. 

 

  

Simplifying solar permitting 

 

It’s easy to see the problems with permitting in the U.S. Each of the 30,000 municipalities across the U.S. has its own permitting process, and many are expensive and cumbersome. Because of the importance of decentralized government in this country, we can’t hope for a federal permitting system.

 

Yet our permitting woes are potentially easy to fix. Just look at what Mayor Rex Parris has done in Lancaster, CA. And at SPI last week, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced the “Chicago Solar Express” program to streamline residential solar permitting to one day. As more local governments jump on the bandwagon, we’re likely to see even more follow suit.

 

At an SPI talk on reducing solar soft costs, James Tong of Clean Power Finance pointed out that cable companies also have to deal with varying local regulations, but they generally manage to install your cable quickly. The solar industry, he said, can aspire to that.

 

Work is being done to make that a reality. To help streamline permitting and track what’s happening around the country, Clean Power Finance, supported by the DOE SunShot Initiative, created solarpermit.org, an open-source, user-generated site that’s free to all installers. Think of it as a Wikipedia for solar permitting. Why would installers share that information? Because it benefits the entire industry. (Have you ever known a sale to be lost because one installer knew permitting better than others?) To further encourage installers to submit information, top contributors get a special link that highlights their company.

 

Solar permitting best practices

 

Annie Lappé of Vote Solar also delved into residential solar permitting issues at SPI. She mentioned that according to the city grading shown at projectpermit.org, many are not yet meeting the 9 solar permitting best practices that Vote Solar and IREC have identified for residential solar:

 

1.     Permitting information that’s easily accessible online at a single location.

2.     Expedited review for simple systems.

3.     Electronic and online permit processing.

4.     Fast turnaround time – one day is ideal, but anything under three days is considered good.

5.     Fair, flat permit fees, ideally under $400, that reflect the time needed to process permit applications.

6.     No community-specific installer licenses – these should be national.

7.     Reduced inspection time windows – inspections should be scheduled for an exact time, or for time windows of two hours or less.

8.     Consolidated residential system inspections – so that only one inspection is required per system.

9.     Solar technology training for permitting staff.

 

However, we’re starting to see the beginnings of positive trends: New York now has a standard permit, and in the San Francisco Bay Area, nine east bay cities have developed a Rapid PV Solar Permit. Chicago, in addition to implementing a one-day permit process, is reducing permitting fees.

 

What you can do

 

Given that permits can cost $1,000 – $2,000 and the average turnaround is two months, there’s room for improvement. And permitting is one of the few areas in solar soft costs that can be improved with policy. Since it’s generally a matter of changing local policies, it’s doable.

 

If you’re interested in improving your town’s solar permitting, you can go to Vote Solar’s permitting toolkit. There you can see how your town measures up, and prepare a Simplifying Permitting Packet for your mayor.