SolarAPP: The Solar Permitting Solution You’ve Been Waiting For?

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As a solar contractor in the U.S., you probably have to contend with the complicated and costly permitting process. You may view it as a frustrating but necessary obstacle to getting a job completed. But a new initiative was announced last month that may help remedy the situation.

Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) and The Solar Foundation unveiled the Solar Automated Permit Processing (SolarAPP) initiative which seeks to expedite and lower the cost of solar permitting. SolarAPP would streamline the process by offering online tools to implement a rules-based, automated permitting and inspection process. It would also allow for instantaneous permitting for eligible installers on non-complex solar projects on the local level.

In this article, we explore some of the problems caused by the current permitting process and discuss the SolarAPP initiative and what it may mean for the U.S. solar industry.

The Problem of the Permit

Many solar contractors point to the permitting process as a problematic aspect of doing business. It tends to be expensive, time-consuming, and occasionally costs them clients. Some of the major issues are significant inconsistency in permitting processes between jurisdictions and long turnaround times.

“How does your service administrator plan a job when the permitting process is so variable?” asks Reeves Clippard, CEO of A&R Solar. “Managing the paperwork and requirements and doing it in a timely manner is a real challenge. So many exceptions and variations makes streamlining this hard.”

Permitting challenges are more than just a logistical headache for solar companies and clients–they result in real costs that impact the growth of the solar industry. According to GTM, permitting adds about three months to a typical residential solar system installation. It also adds approximately $7,000 in direct and indirect costs, about $1.00 of the 2017 median residential system cost of $3.70 per watt.

According to Sungevity co-founder Andrew Birch, simplified, automated solar permitting processes in major overseas markets like Australia have translated to significantly lower price per watt, rapid industry expansion, and minimal cancellation rates.

Permitting has long been recognized as a pain point in the solar industry. There have been a variety of state and regional efforts over the past 15 years to streamline permitting, with varying degrees of success. States such as California and Massachusetts have tried to simplify and expedite the process, as have certain regions like Long Island and the Northwest. To date, however, there has not been a broad, coordinated effort to solve the issue.

“How does your service administrator plan a job when the permitting process is so variable? Managing the paperwork and requirements and doing it in a timely manner is a real challenge.” – Reeves Clippard, CEO of A&R Solar

SolarAPP: A Potential Game Changer?

This new initiative represents the most comprehensive attempt at solar permitting reform. SolarAPP would allow residential contractors, small commercial contractors, and battery storage installers to become accredited via a central online registration portal. It would remove the need to appeal to local authorities for permission to install a system. The main components of the plan are:

  • Replacing the current multi-step process with a skills training and certification program that would ensure contractors are compliant with applicable codes, laws, and practices;
  • A free, standardized online platform for local governments to “register” and automatically screen qualifying systems;
  • A list of equipment standards and certified equipment;
  • Codified system design standards for qualifying solar projects;
  • A model instantaneous permitting regime for systems installed by certified contractors;
  • A program administrator who oversees and implements the plan and provides technical assistance to state and local jurisdictions and utilities.

The initiative may mimic other countries and utilize quality control measures like spot checks–with the threat of loss of accreditation for noncompliance–to ensure solar systems are being installed to code.

The creators of SolarAPP are looking to relieve the burden of permitting for both customers and solar contracting businesses by removing unnecessary red tape, standardizing the steps, and lowering overall costs. “The goal is to make solar permitting more straightforward, and more routine, while at the same time maintaining the safety and reliability that U.S. solar projects are known for,” says SEIA President and CEO Abigail Ross Hopper.

The Solar Foundation asserts that SolarAPP will help make solar available to a wider range of income levels, cultivate a high level of excellence among solar companies, and help energize the industry across the value chain.

The next steps to make SolarAPP a reality include policy discussions on multiple levels of government, which SEIA will spearhead. The Solar Foundation will lead efforts to create the accreditation process with certified products and the online registration system. One of the remaining challenges to be addressed is to communicate how a centrally managed system addresses present concerns about safety and quality. Birch argues that a centralized process can actually offer greater safety, compared to a “completely disparate group of building offices… trying to individually manage the safety of solar and distributed energy.”

If successful, SolarAPP could be the much-needed change the industry has been waiting for. It could mean an easier, more cost-effective approval process for customers and contractors alike that helps usher in considerable industry growth. Billy Parish, CEO of Mosaic, states that the creation of an automated solar permitting process that reduces soft-costs “is the next frontier in affordability, critical in moving us toward clean energy for all.”