Solar Permitting and Inspection Solutions During COVID-19

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At SolSmart, we are getting increased interest from our communities in methods and processes that allow communities to continue permitting and inspections with the safety of the community and staff in mind. For the most part, this involves moving as many processes as possible to online platforms. If your community is ready to consider these steps, we are ready to help you. As we navigate this unprecedented and challenging time, the SolSmart team will continue to serve as a resource for communities to remain open for solar business. Many building departments in communities across the country have closed or greatly reduced services, causing a major disruption to the construction industry at large, with substantial impacts on solar installation. The widespread disruptions to regular services and operations underscore the great value of streamlined online permitting and inspection processes that allow local economies to continue to benefit from solar energy.

Online permitting and inspection has been successfully implemented in diverse communities across the United States, with about a third of SolSmart-designated communities nationwide already offering an online permitting process. Providence, RI;  Kansas City, MO; Decorah, IA; and many more local governments have taken steps toward streamlined, virtual permitting or inspection processes. It’s anticipated that this trend will continue, and most likely accelerate, in the coming months. As we adjust to social distancing and adapt our regular operations to this “new normal,” we’re seeing authorities having jurisdiction around the country establish permit and inspection processes online that allow solar systems to continue being installed. For example, the inspection office in Boxford, MA, has re-opened remotely, with a new process for inspections by photos submitted and reviewed via email. In Sonoma County, CA (SolSmart Gold), inspection services have transitioned to remote video technology. The city of Sacramento, CA (SolSmart Gold), is also offering virtual interactive inspections instead of field inspections.

While this transition requires an adjustment in operations, there are a few steps building departments can take to enable remote permit approvals and continue to ensure quality installations:

  • Move the permitting applications process online. Many communities are now accepting permitting applications via email or through an online platform, and allow application fees to be paid virtually by an online payment processing system, by phone, by checks in the mail, or through a dropbox.
  • Adopt a simplified permit process. Many jurisdictions have already simplified the permitting process by implementing a one-page application, which allows for a simplified and streamlined online approval. Here are a few examples from Naperville, IL (SolSmart Silver), Atlanta,GA (SolSmart Gold), and Goshen, IN (SolSmart Gold). SolSmart has published a helpful guide for streamlining residential PV permitting that all communities can consult. Some communities have even adopted instant online permitting processes whereby a permit is issued electronically upon submission of required information by a registered contractor.
    • For example, instant, online permitting is available in Los Angeles County and North Las Vegas.
    • Also in Nevada, the city of Las Vegas (SolSmart Gold), and Clark County (SolSmart Bronze) produce online, instant permits via a registration model. Upon providing project location, system capacity, and installer information, contractors pay a fee and are instantly provided a printable permit.
  • Allow for remote plan checks and inspections. Adjust the inspection process to utilize photos of the installation or a live video tour with the installer. That way, permitting authorities can continue to work virtually, maintaining fee revenues, and your local solar workforce can continue to install systems. For example, New York State has developed this photo inspection checklist. Video inspection processes are outlined by North Las Vegas. Los Angeles County has a virtual inspection guide and platform. Virtual building inspections are available in Pima County, AZ (SolSmart Gold), Austin, TX (SolSmart Gold), and others.
  • National, solar-specific online solutions are coming! SolSmart has been participating with partners including several SolSmart team members (National Renewable Energy Laboratory, The Solar Foundation, and the Solar Energy Industries Association) research and industry leaders, code bodies, and building officials to develop the Solar Automated Permit Processing (SolarAPP) platform. SolarAPP will provide a national, open source permitting portal designed to standardize and streamline permitting, inspection, and interconnection processes for small-scale solar and solar plus storage installations. A beta version of the platform is nearly complete, and once ready, the SolarAPP will be accessible to all jurisdictions at no cost to them. The SolarAPP team held a webinar on April 14 to review a prototype and provide feedback on a preliminary set of permitting criteria. View the recorded webinar here.

Despite these unprecedented circumstances, the SolSmart team is still working hard to provide resources for communities to stay open for solar business. We can provide guidance on implementation of online permitting or inspection solutions through no-cost technical assistance from the SolSmart team. These actions may help communities achieve SolSmart designation or move to a higher designation level. We encourage you to reach out with any questions, or to share challenges and solutions.

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