Improving Solar Permitting in the United States

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changes to solar permitting

In the middle of building a new home or just adding on? These all require building permits. In fact, permits are one of the necessary evils that every building project faces.

Permitting ensures the project is safe. The city or county issues permits when a project’s plans are up to code.

Legally projects can’t start until the local government issues a permit for it. The problem is that solar permitting isn’t a straight-forward process.

The Current Solar Permitting Situation

Getting a permit requires more than making sure the project plans are safe. Once the project has started it may need to be intermittently inspected. All projects need inspecting after completion so they can get final city approval.

For solar arrays, city permits aren’t the only requirement pre-solar installation. The home owner’s electric company and HOA, if they have one, needs to give approval for the project as well.

If the project and those overseeing it are following code, this shouldn’t be an issue. The hassle comes with the processes of acquiring the permit.

Solar Panel Permit Requirements

Solar permits across the United States are extremely varied. There are several factors that go into these differences.

Each state and city has its own code requirements, zoning, and solar legislation. On top of these variations, the size and type of solar array make a difference. It can affect the type of permit(s) needed and the process to obtain them. 

For instance, a solar array installed on a roof has different requirements than one installed in a backyard. Certain cities and electric companies also have system size limitations as well. They may also require different permits because of the size of the solar array.

 Solar Permit Fees And Wait Times

Another issue that comes with permits is the wait time and fees associated with them. There are several different fee structures used though out the United States.

Some cities have set permit pricing others have pricing that varies on the size and scope of the project. Often these fees are a bit outrageous, but they need to be paid for the project to get started.

On top of these fees, there are long and unpredictable wait periods for issuing solar permits. It can take anywhere from a couple of hours to several months for a permit to receive approval.

Why Permitting Needs to Change for PV Solar

Local governments are constantly changing solar policy and code regulations. The problem is that none of these changes are universal.

This makes it hard for solar companies because they need to know the policies of each city within a state. If the company is in more than one state, this problem multiplies.

This, however, isn’t the reason why the permitting process needs to change. It is because not having a streamlined process is negativity impacting solar customers.

Solar Permit Application and Customer Frustration

Permits are normally submitted by the solar company of choice. This is because they are the ones responsible for the solar array’s code compliance.

Permitting costs and wait estimates are often included in the solar customer’s estimate. However, these are only best guesses.

Sometimes there are unexpected and unforeseen fees and waits. Customers understandably get frustrated and sometimes cancel their solar installation altogether.

As a result, solar companies get unfairly accused of wrongdoing. On top of this, it taints what should have been a no-hassle experience for the customer.

 The ITC Phase-down and Solar Permitting

2020 marks the start of a new twist that has spurred the need for change. This is the year that the 30 percent federal tax credit will start to phase down.

This tax credit was first instated to help make solar affordable and spur the solar market. Since that time the cost of solar has gone down dramatically. However, it still is a significant investment.

When the ITC is no longer there to make up the difference, the ROI of solar will not be as tempting. However, soft costs such as permitting account for over 50 percent of the cost of solar.

If these costs are minimized it could dramatically impact the price of solar. Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory found that cities with favorable permitting processes reduced costs between 4 and 12 percent.

The impact streamlined solar permitting will have on the nation is visionary. Several states can see this and have already started making headway with standardized permitting. The solar industry is now working together to make standardized processes across America more than a dream.

What America is Doing to Streamline Permitting

There are some states and cities that have quality permitting. However, streamlined permitting, across America, has yet to be achieved. 

To make this possible several solar organizations have been working together. They have been working to increase public awareness of the problem and this solution.

Once leaders are on board, the solar industry has created some tools to help them accomplish streamlined permitting. This tool kit includes everything from proposed new fee structures to updated processes.

Permitting Software: Federal State and Local Levels

One of the hold-ups with permitting is the time it takes for the permit to get processed and approved. The longer this processes takes the less likely the customer is going to be happy.

Today this processes is a little all over the place. It is unclear what exactly is expected and it is different for each city.

Several solar industry organization such as The Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), the Solar Foundation and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) have worked together to create permitting software. This software, known as SolarAPP, is designed to decrease the time and money it takes to review and approve solar permitting. 

This is done through several different functions of the software. Some of these include the flexibility of a web-based permitting tool and its capability to evaluate applications and design plans. The software also builds on existing programs so that soft costs can more easily decrease.

Expedited Permitting Process for Residential PV Systems

As the solar industry has grown so has the need for an expedited process for residential solar arrays. This need is great because more individuals are installing solar on their homes. If not handled correctly, this could and has bogged down the permitting process.

Solar ABCs created an expedited permit process for smaller PV systems. This process is meant to help systems under 15 kilowatts quickly obtain permits.

It does this by simplifying the electrical and structural review of smaller PV systems. It also decreases the need for detailed engineer studies and other unnecessary delays.

Adjusting Solar Permitting Fees

There are several different ways that permitting fees can adjust. However, finding the best policy for the entire nation may be a bit of a stretch. This is why several different ways to make permitting fees more reasonable have been suggested.

Some of these ideas include eliminating solar permitting fees and putting a cap on permitting costs. Another suggestion is having the fee associated with the time it takes to processes the permit. It is also suggested that the fees be based on the PV installers labor costs.

Which one of these different fee structures is best is debatable. However, using any one of them is better than being overcharged.

Should you Wait for Permitting Changes Before Going Solar?

As these suggested changes are implemented the price for solar will go down. This will keep solar at a price that is still beneficial for the public after the ITC is phased out. This provides hope for the future of the solar industry.

However, the likely hood that the price will drop lower than it is with the 30 percent ITC, at least at first, is not high. If solar is in the cards for you, getting it while the ITC is still in place will give you the most bang for your buck.

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