Are Solar Permit Costs Restricting Residential PV Installations?

For about half of America $3.50 per watt is the number where solar installation is competitive with utility electricity, but with many more benefits. In California local building departments have come around a little, bending some from the pressure of groups like the Sierra Club.

However, across America, solar companies and residential and commercial property owners are having to eat the high cost of solar permitting as well as put up with the red tape delays. If this country would standardize local solar installation policies and rules, the benefits to local communities would be huge.

There is a new solar impact study out entitled “The Impact of Local Permitting on the Cost of Solar Power”. The report concluded that local permitting and inspection add $0.50 per watt, or $2,516 per residential installation. The wide variations in permitting processes do not improve safety. (Source: Bill Roth, Triple Pundit.)

Permitting costs are equivalent to a $1 billion tax on solar over the next five years making it harder for installers to achieve economies of scale that can be used to push solar power to price parity with utility supplied power. The question is why?

The key issues of solar permitting are: safety in terms of preventing electrical back-feeds that could harm a utility worker structural integrity and sound electrical safety practices that protect against fire and human harm. Today’s solar systems deploy technologies that prevent back-feeds. The numbers of solar installations, plus the adoption of engineering/construction best practices learned from these solar installations, are now well understood by the industry and most structural engineers. And these systems are now almost universally pre-wired for simplicity in solar installation and compliance with electrical code.

So why is permitting of roof top solar power treated by local jurisdictions like a newfangled experiment that requires additional attention and paper documentation? Today, in local jurisdiction after jurisdiction, solar installers have to research each jurisdiction’s codes, pay for customized drawings and apply for zoning approval every time they do an installation. In many instances the local jurisdiction will require a solar installer to pay for the additional cost of having a professional engineer review and certify solar installation plans even when similar plans were previously approved. Is this level of attention on roof top solar installations merited for an installation that may be easier than connecting a surround sound flat screen TV system with the Internet and cable?

A related issue is the massive amounts of paperwork often required by the local utility and state regulatory commission to secure solar rebates. Given recent natural gas line explosions on both coasts it would appear utility and regulatory attention should be less intense on solar power and more so on fossil fuels that require high pressures, combustion and environmental emissions for their successful operation.

Is this heavy attention on solar an example of a legacy bureaucracy system that today has exceeded its value? When roof top solar systems were first being installed and we were moving up the learning curve then having this extensive of a review and permitting process could be rationalized as a way to insure solar installation alignment with utility standards and to certify that the solar power systems were generating the levels of electricity that justified commission allocated subsidies. But with the standardization of best practices in solar system construction installation and the 10-20 years of performance certification on actual operating system the question must be raised on whether the cost for continuing this level of documentation is still justified?

And here is where it really gets frustrating. DOE already has in place a process for implementing a streamlined permitting path for solar. DOE has already funded development of uniform permitting standards through Solar ABCs6 to allow jurisdictions to streamline permitting for most solar installations while still following the codes and maintaining human safety.

What is the dollar value of streamlining this documentation process for solar permits? The clearest example is that Germany has a 40% lower cost of solar installation just based upon the difference in their national permitting process vs. America’s local permitting process. Eliminating this cost difference is equal to giving the solar industry a $1 billion cost subsidy over 5 years!

Here’s a list of what we are talking about:

Today, to begin the inspection process a human being has to physically deliver a paper application for solar installation at a local jurisdiction office. Really, with the Internet, email and mobile apps, is it still necessary to pay the cost measured in time, money, fuel and emissions to hand-deliver paperwork that could be delivered via digitally at almost no cost?

Too often local jurisdictions size solar installation and inspection fees to generate a source of local government revenue than to reflect the cost value of the permitting process. Talk about shooting the community in the foot, what is the logic of imposing high fees on a project that will create local jobs, enhance local property values and improve the local environment? If I were looking for ways to spark my community’s economic development and enhance its environmental quality then what about making the permitting process for solar free?

Are detailed and often multiple field inspections necessary for today’s solar systems that come pre-wired for compliance with both electrical building codes and utility interconnection procedures? This on site inspection process involves costs like scheduling a solar inspection, waiting for inspectors with a crew on site and then rescheduling inspections if the inspector does not show up due to a scheduling delay or conflict. And in too many jurisdictions inspections are required in process meaning multiple complexity in scheduling and added construction costs tied to waiting for inspection. Another cost is the frustration of the solar customer who questions the installer on why the solar installation is taking so long.

Can reducing solar permitting paperwork work in America? San José California is benefiting from having installed solar systems that are meaningfully lower in cost than compared to surrounding cities.

More importantly, a national policy for enabling solar by streamlining costs rather than handing out cash subsidies holds the very real promise of solar power installations costing $3.50 per watt. That is what Germany has achieved! And the value created at this threshold price point is price competitiveness with utility electricity supplied from fossil fuels. For about half of America, achieving $3.50 per watt roof top solar power installations would be at price parity with utility supplied power. Such a result would be a win for consumers and for the local community in terms of jobs and environmental quality.

So the question is why not streamline the solar permitting process? That’s a very good question you should ask your local elected official if you are looking for price stability at your meter, local jobs for your community and a cleaner environment. Additional residential solar installations can provide all of that.