*Pre-requisite for SolSmart designation
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Providing a set of requirements for the local solar permitting process (for both residential and commercial solar) on an easy-to-find municipal web page represents a major step toward overcoming informational barriers. A public solar permit checklist can be a relatively simple way for a community to accelerate permit approval timelines and save staff time by reducing the number of inquiries received from solar contractors and requests for additional information associated with incomplete permit applications. Such checklists typically detail all the plans and forms required for approval and system design requirements.
Resources and Examples:
Pre-requisite for SolSmart Gold designation. 20 points
Implementing a streamlined permitting process for small-scale solar PV systems (≤10-15 kW) along with other efforts increase process efficiency and reduce permit turnaround times can result in significant time and cost savings for municipal staff, solar contractors, and solar customers. In addition to streamlined permitting, actions such as allowing for online permit submittal and approvals and/or “over the counter” review and approval processes can help communities achieve a 7-day turnaround.
Recognizing and accounting for the relative simplicity and similarities of small-scale solar photovoltaic (PV) systems (≤10-15 kW in size) can allow local jurisdictions to establish processes to expedite review and approval of these systems while maintaining its commitment to ensuring public safety. Establishing a separate, streamlined process for small-scale PV systems based on proven national best practices can reduce the time required to review and approve qualifying applications, saving time and money both for the local government and the solar customer.
As rooftop solar energy systems impact both the structural and electrical aspects of the buildings on which they are installed, many local jurisdictions require both building and electrical permits for rooftop solar PV systems. However, residential rooftop systems with minimal structural impacts can be safely permitted without a building permit application. Relevant design aspects for systems qualifying for only one application form include (but are not limited to): mounting system features, static and dynamic loads of the system, type of roofing material and waterproofing methods, and compliance with zoning and fire codes.
Because solar permitting in many jurisdictions is handled through existing permitting processes, permit fees for solar installations are often calculated according to value-based methods typically associated with building permits (where the fee is a certain percentage of the overall project cost). Due to the high cost of solar installations relative to comparable projects, fees under a value-based method can easily become expensive and exceed the cost of the staff time required to review and issue permits. Reviewing existing fee structures and revising these (if necessary) to a flat-fee method (for residential, not to exceed $400 per permit) or a cost-recovery method (for commercial) – and posting fee structures online with other permitting information – can help ensure permit fees cover staff costs without unnecessarily increasing solar project costs.
A number of national permitting best practices are oriented toward reducing the time required for a local jurisdiction to process a solar permit application. Conducting an internal review of existing processes using these best practices can help communities identify areas for efficiency improvements. Implementing the right mix of strategies given the local context can result in permit turnaround times of ten business days or fewer.
While requiring a single application form under existing permitting processes represents an improvement over requiring both a building and electrical permit, it may still be more time consuming than necessary to complete, review, and approve permits via a process not specifically designed with solar in mind. Developing a solar-specific permit (or combining building and electrical permits with revisions to collect information unique to solar energy systems) and posting application materials online can save time and money for both those completing the forms (and their customers) and the local government staff reviewing and approving these applications.
Increasing permitting staff knowledge of solar energy systems and of how to properly review solar permit applications for compliance with building and electrical codes can increase process efficiency, thereby reducing demands on staff time and resources. Local jurisdictions can require staff to attend full or half-day workshops (either live or online) and provide or create resources designed to help staff keep up with advances in solar and/or storage technologies.
Though fires caused by rooftop solar PV systems are extremely rare, firefighters addressing fires caused by other means need to take special precautions when a solar PV system is present. Training fire safety staff on how to identify and avoid potential hazards can help ensure the safety of these first responders and reduce misconceptions or discomfort around increased solar deployment.
Maintaining an open channel of regular communication with the local installer community can help minimize any potential adverse impacts arising from changes to the permitting process or requirements. Such communication can take the form of email updates, online newsletters, website updates with notifications, in-person meetings, or others.
Online permit submittal, review, and approval can eliminate solar contractor trips to the permitting office for most systems and reduce the amount of time permitting staff need to spend entering information from paper application forms into an online database. These systems can be as simple as accepting permit applications and sending approvals via email, to fully online forms and other submittals. Fully online systems can allow for multiple staff to review materials at the same time and to track progress in the review and approval process.
Fire and safety personnel can benefit by having access to the locations of permitted PV systems. This enables fire departments to be able know in advance of responding to an emergency at a home or business that there are solar panels on-site.
Easily accessible data to local government departments can create a transparent mode of efficiently tracking goals and communicating progress. A few example benefits are listed here. Data on solar PV and storage permits can provide local PACE administrators with resources to evaluate how often their financing tools are used. Another potential benefit is that sharing data can help local government departments track progress toward their own individual goals related to solar and storage. Another benefit is that this public information can help build a positive success story for local publicity and community engagement.
Examples and Resources
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