How Streamlined Permits Can Help Your Community Go Solar

The updated SolSmart Program Guide provides an overview of the 75 actions in five categories that communities can undertake to achieve SolSmart designation. Today, we’ll take a look at the first of the five categories: Permitting and Inspection. 

The permitting and inspection process is one of the most important tools that local governments have at their disposal to encourage solar energy growth. That’s why permitting and inspection is a core area of focus for communities seeking SolSmart designation. As any business owner will know, a slow or inefficient permit process can lead to frustrating delays and ultimately increase the cost of a project. For residential solar installations, permitting and inspection can substantially increase the “soft costs” that make up as much as 64% of the total cost of the system. In fact, direct and indirect permitting costs can add up to $7,000 ($1 per Watt) to the cost of a typical residential installation.

The good news is that there are proven and effective steps local governments can take to create a transparent, efficient, and cost-effective permitting process and reduce the time and cost for residents and businesses to go solar. The benefits also carry over to local government staff, who can reduce the time and resources spent on solar permits and devote their attention to other priorities.

SolSmart has a number of useful resources to help communities get started. The Simplified Solar Permitting Guide is a step-by-step guide for local jurisdictions on permitting simple residential systems. This simplified process puts safety and reliability at the forefront, while adhering to all building, residential, fire, and electrical codes. Another detailed overview can be found in the Permitting and Inspection chapter of SolSmart’s Toolkit for Local Governments. And a three-part webinar series by permitting expert Bill Brooks, P.E. goes over best practices for solar permitting and inspection. You can view the first session here.

Meanwhile, a new tool that could soon be widely available is SolarAPP, a collaborative effort led by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory to develop an instant online permitting tool for residential solar systems. SolSmart is supporting the development of this tool, which is now in the pilot phase and will be rolled out on a national scale later this year.

Below are a few examples of the 20 credits available under SolSmart for permitting and inspection (PI):

— A prerequisite for all SolSmart designees is to post an online checklist detailing the required permitting process to install a small rooftop solar PV system (PI-1). This is a simple way to provide easy access to information for solar installers and the general public. For examples of these checklists, take a look at SolSmart Gold communities Chapel Hill, North Carolina and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

— Two prerequisites for SolSmart Silver designees are to train local staff on best practices for permitting solar PV or solar + storage (PI-2) and on best practices for solar PV or solar + storage inspections (PI-3). This helps ensure permitting technicians and plan reviewers are up to date on new procedures, codes, and products in the solar industry.

— A prerequisite for Gold designation is to reduce the turnaround time for solar permits to three days or less (PI-4), providing cost savings to local government staff, solar companies, and customers. The SolSmart Simplified Solar Permitting Guide can help communities review their processes and procedures to achieve this three-day turnaround time.

— Waiving fees for solar energy system permits (PI-9) can be another incentive for community members to go solar. Another option is to limit residential permit fees to $500 or less (PI-10). For commercial solar, communities can demonstrate that fees are capped at a reasonable level so they do not become a net revenue source (PI-11).

— SolSmart offers several options for communities to earn points by developing a faster and more efficient inspection process. One is to post inspection requirements online (PI-12), helping ensure inspection requirements will have been met before the inspector arrives on site. Another is to require no more than two inspections overall (PI-13) and limit the inspections to electrical, structural, and fire safety aspects. One resource to help guide the local inspection process is the Model Inspection Checklist for Residential Rooftop PV from the Interstate Renewable Energy Council.

Additional points in the permitting and inspection category cover online permitting processes, safety training for firefighters, and permitting and inspection for solar + storage systems. A complete overview of the SolSmart criteria is available in the program guide. To learn more about the no-cost technical assistance SolSmart can offer your community, contact us today.