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Green Building News

Solar Installers’ Other Business: Obtaining Permits

It’s one thing for them to land a contract, quite another to navigate byzantine permitting requirements

This table, produced by solar installer SunRun, summarizes the cost of local inconsistencies in the permitting and inspection processes for the installation of photovoltaic systems – about $2,516 per installation and $0.50 per watt.
Image Credit: SunRun Inc.

Most PV system installers in the U.S. could tell you a different permitting story for every municipality in their market area. And that is a symptom of one of the problems facing the solar industry in many parts of the country: each town has its own permit process, with different code requirements, fees, turnaround times, filing procedures, staffing levels, and other bureaucratic wrinkles.

As some of the anecdotes and observations in a recent New York Times story illustrate, many companies that specialize in the installation of photovoltaic systems have departments dedicated entirely to securing permits – an arrangement that, while necessary in many regions, is as costly as it is frustrating for the companies and their customers. One company cited in the Times article, San Francisco-based SunRun, released a report this week indicating that permitting and inspections cost an average of $2,516 for each installation and, over the next five years, will add about $1 billion to installation costs nationwide unless the process is standardized to a substantial degree.

Trying to give new momentum to existing proposals

The issue is hardly new. The Department of Energy in 2007 established the Solar Energy Technologies Program, whose Solar America Communities initiative, first published in July 2009, is designed to help guide local governments in the development strategies for improving solar access and solar rights laws, building energy codes, and code staff training, and for simplifying permit application forms and otherwise streamlining and improving solar permitting. And in April 2010, the DOE announced funding of $10 million for solar energy education for local governments.

One study produced under the Solar Energy Technologies Program, “Expedited Permit Process for PV Systems,” focuses entirely on helping jurisdictions simplify most procedures and, to accommodate many residential installations, offers specific guidelines for a greatly expedited permitting process.

Another study, prepared in 2008 by a researcher at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University for the Network for New Energy Choices, a program run by environmental group Grace Communications Foundation, also offers detailed guidelines for revising permitting procedures and ensuring that staffers are up to speed on photovoltaic technology.

Streamlining could expand the market potential for PV systems considerably, SunRun points out, adding that only about 120,000 homes in the U.S. have been equipped with PV arrays, while Germany, whose permitting system is vastly simpler, has reported a million new installations over the past two years. And with the Obama administration backing energy efficiency programs while also pushing for reviews of regulations that might stifle economic expansion, this may be as good a time as any to try to thin out the PV permitting thicket.


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