Regional Approaches to Reducing Solar Red Tape

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Last week Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory released their annual Tracking the Sun report on the cost of going solar across the U.S. The research team found that solar’s price tag has never been lower, and the most significant opportunity for continued price reduction has nothing to do with panels – it’s all about non-hardware “soft” costs like local permitting.

Just like any other home improvement project, going solar first requires the home to get a building permit from their city or county. More than 18,000 municipalities in the U.S. set their own requirements for this solar permitting process – which leaves us with a patchwork of varying requirements that is one giant headache for solar installers. Long waits, high fees, excessive inspections, avoidable paperwork and non-standard practices across different jurisdictions can all add unnecessary costs to what should be a simple, transparent process.

Vote Solar’s Project Permit tackles this issue head on by providing resources to citizens – like you – to help simplify solar permitting in your towns. On Project Permit you can see how your community measures up to best practices on our interactive solar permitting map. And if it’s lagging, put our local advocacy toolkit to work by calling on your mayor for action!

As part of our Project Permit work we encourage cities to work together to simplify and streamline the permitting process at a region level so there’s less crazy-making variability between neighbors. Here are two such regional efforts that are setting a great example for others to follow:

New York:

As part of Governor Cuomo’s NY-Sun Initiative to ramp up solar development and drive down solar costs, the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) collaborated with various partners across the state to adopt a Unified Solar Permit, which draws from Solar ABCs best practices and other guidelines.

The standardized form, that all 1,600 municipalities in New York can use, includes permitting guidelines for municipalities to use that match up to many best practices from Project Permit, including:

  • A straightforward online checklist that lets users know whether their projects are eligible, and a simple process for listing a system’s technical specifications.
  • A suggested reasonable, flat fee of $150 for application processing.
  • A suggested fast turn around time of 14 days or less (Note: Project Permit best practice is either an over-the counter processing option as the ideal, but credit is given for processing time of 3 days or under. Given that many jurisdictions can take months to process a permit, we think that two weeks is moving in the right direction).
  • A suggestion to eliminate excessive inspections. They are suggesting that only a single inspection be required.

NYSERDA will be offering a small financial incentive to encourage municipalities across New York to transition to this standardized approach. And if that’s not enough of a carrot: if New York municipalities adopt the standardized form and follow the recommended guidelines they are almost assured to earn a “best” score in Project Permit.

Northern California:

Cities in the East Bay of Northern California are also making serious strides towards a uniform, regional approach to simplified solar permitting. Just this month, nines cities approved the East Bay’s Green Corridor’s “Rapid PV Permit” for single-family residential installations. Like the New York process, many of the recommended guidelines emerging from this regional effort meet best practices in Project Permit, including:

  • A straightforward online checklist that lets users know exactly what will be required during the permitting process.Standard forms are also posted online, including a Rapid PV Permit, Solar PV Standard Plan, and the Green Corridor’s innovative structural engineering guidelines.
  • A suggested reasonable fee not to exceed the cost of staff time to issue the permit (we hope this will match up to our best practice of a flat fee under $400, but that remains to be seen).
  • A fast turn around time of either over the counter processing, or a goal of week turn around time or less.
  • Online Processing should soon be available in many of the nine cities.

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. This is NOT for everyone, but for those of you that are SICK of the constant, stressful urban “Rat’s Nest” lifestyle, you CAN turn the clock BACK 130 years or so, by moving to one of the extremely rural areas of this Country, where there ARE no HOA, and you are EXPECTED to either KNOW how to build your rural home, or hire someone who DOES. Once you do THAT, you can just install your own free standing Wind/Solar system, and never make another Power Payment, as well as not pay someone who does NOT utilize 100% renewable, non-polluting generation methods.

    Another bonus to Rural living, is that if you have your OWN two to five acre garden, AND use Heirloom seeds, you KNOW where your food comes from, and HOW it was harvested, so you DON’T get any of the periodic food poisoning illnesses that sweep this Country. For us, the nearest movie house is 90 miles away, and WE couldn’t be happier.

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