Lowering the Cost of Solar Permitting in the US


It used to be — way back in history, like 2008 — that the biggest barrier to growing solar markets was the cost of the modules. Since then, module costs have come down around 80% — to the point that hardware costs are no longer the largest part of the overall cost of a solar system.

This is great news, because many of the remaining ‘soft costs’ can be improved via the efforts of local policymakers. That means we don’t need technology breakthroughs to lower the cost of solar. We just need leadership.

Take permitting, for example. This excellent analysis by the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab shows that the cost to a solar installer to deal with permitting, inspection, and interconnection is about $0.20/W higher in the US than in Germany. Other studies estimate that permitting can add as much as $0.50/W to the cost of a solar system. This means you’re looking at an extra ~$1000 in paperwork costs for a typical 5 kW residential install.

With over 18,000 municipalities across the US setting their own solar permitting processes, getting a permit can either be a walk in the park, with simple and clear requirements, on-line procedures, and reasonable fees — or require multiple trips and a lot of standing in line. Time is money. Making this process straightforward and simple is a relatively easy way for policymakers to help reduce the cost of going solar.

So here’s what we are doing to help make it easy for policymakers to make the right decision when it comes to solar permitting. Clean Power Finance is collecting data on permitting practices at the individual municipality level across the nation. We are taking that data, and incorporating it into a website that will allow people to click through a map of the country, and find out the exact permitting practices in their town. But wait! There’s more! The website will also grade each locale against Vote Solar and IREC’s nine best-practice metrics, and provide an advocacy toolkit to policy makers or solar advocates looking to bring their cities or towns up to best practices. We call it “Project Permit.” Funding for the Project Permit website comes from Solar 3.0, a DOE-funded collaborative that has set ambitious solar permitting cost reduction goals.

Our hope is that Project Permit will be helpful in establishing a common understanding of best-practices in solar permitting, and will be a useful tool in the drive to turn our cities into solar-friendly communities. When the website launches this summer, we’ll work with our members and other advocacy organizations to put together campaigns to drive change at the municipal level. We’re really excited to give people a practical way to make effective change in their hometown.

In a similar vein, a few states — California, Colorado and Vermont, for example — have established helpful statewide permitting requirements or guidelines. From experience, we know that these efforts can be politically charged — many localities don’t want the state telling them how to run their permitting departments. It’s not a one-size-fits-all solution. So, going forward, we are putting effort into developing a ‘menu of policy options’ for statewide action – policy ideas that could be worked into state legislation or administrative initiatives. We will work with our partners across the U.S. to identify which options make the most sense for which states, and plan additional collaborations with local policy leaders to put them to work.

Vote Solar is a non-profit grassroots organization working to fight climate change and foster economic opportunity by bringing solar energy into the mainstream.

About Author

Walter’s contributions to CleanTechies over the past 4 years have been instrumental in growing the publications social media channels via his ongoing editorial and data driven strategies. He is the founder and managing director of Sunflower Tax, a renewable energy tax and finance consultancy based in San Diego, California. Active in the San Diego clean technology community, participating in events sponsored by CleanTech San Diego, EcoTopics, and Cleantech Open San Diego, Walter has also been a presenter at numerous California Center for Sustainability (CCSE) programs. He currently serves as an adjunct professor at the University of San Diego School of Law where he teaches a course on energy taxation and policy.

1 Comment

  1. The actual cost of permit fees in the study is ~5% of total.

    The issue is that there is no federal right to light, and therefore everyone writes their own rules. Second, only ~20-25% of current roofs are suitable for solar. Part of this is the architecture profession, but some of this is solar installers looking to make a sale.

    A good place to start is a uniform permitting process. But that is only a start.