As a solar contractor, you likely have to contend with complicated and costly permitting processes, which can be among the most frustrating and time-consuming obstacles necessary to complete new projects.
The Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) knows this, which is why they and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) developed Solar Automated Permit Processing (SolarAPP), which aims to reduce the costs and time spent on solar permitting for installers across the US.
Originally launched in 2021, the SolarAPP (now known as SolarApp+) is a free set of online tools that allows city and county building departments to implement rules-based, automated permitting and inspection processes for new solar projects, including instantaneous approval for eligible installers planning routine installations.
In this article, we explore some of the problems caused by traditional permitting processes in the US before discussing how SolarAPP+ is changing the landscape and accelerating the American solar industry one jurisdiction at a time.
Addressing solar permitting issues
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 when the turnaround times are long and differences between permitting processes in different areas cause confusion.
“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.”
Of course, permitting challenges are more than just a logistical headache for solar companies and their clients. They result in bottlenecks, expenses, and delays that impact the growth of the entire solar industry.
For example, Australia has a much lower cost per watt for solar — averaging $1.20 per watt for a 10 kW system — in part due to streamlined permitting processes. It makes sense. In the US the cost per watt for solar is generally between $2.50 and $4.00, depending on the source, with an average price of around $3.25 per watt according to Wood MacKenzie. Of that $3.25, about $1.00 or so can be attributed directly or indirectly to traditional permitting processes.
SolarApp+: automated, online permitting
SolarAPP+ allows Authority Having Jurisdictions (AHJs) to easily reform and standardize their solar permitting processes with an online portal for residential, small commercial, and battery storage contractors to become accredited, register new projects, and receive timely approval on submitted plans.
The creators of SolarAPP+ are looking to relieve the burden of permitting for both customers and solar contracting businesses, “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,” said SEIA President and CEO Abigail Ross Hopper.
Since SolarApp+’s launch, 146 communities have started piloting or have adopted it, over 27,700 permits have been issued, and 181,200 kilowatts have been approved. All told? It has helped save 27,700 estimated hours in review time.
Tuscon, AZ, Mayor Regina Romero explained, “The permitting process was taking four weeks. Now with SolarAPP+ we give a permit the same day.”
For installers, registering with SolarAPP+ can help remove some of the unnecessary red tape and time spent in the permitting process, which can directly lower average costs and project turnaround times in participating AHJs. Some of the key benefits that SolarAPP+ offers installers include:
- Allows contractors to easily check plan compliance with local guidelines prior to plan submission
- Creates instant permit approval eligibility for experienced developers submitting basic, “cookie-cutter” plan sets
- Reduces confusion by standardizing permit processing steps across participating jurisdictions.
The future of SolarApp+
Improving the solar permitting process for contractors and AHJs alike, SolarAPP+ is already energizing communities across the country with reduced costs and project timelines.
Looking ahead, further adoption of SolarAPP+ can create a domino effect, with improved efficiency and allocation of resources making solar more available to a wider range of income levels and communities.
For more information, webinars, and additional resources for both AHJs and contractors, please visit the NREL’s dedicated SolarAPP+ page.