Reforming Permitting, One Jurisdiction at a Time
By MIKE KOSHMRL
You can chalk up about 10 percent of the cost of a typical residential solar array to paperwork. Breaking it down, non-module, balance-of-system costs account for 40 to 50 percent of the total installation expense for a typical array. A quarter of that falls within permitting, which spans inspections and fees necessary to satisfy grid-compliance, building, zoning and fire department codes. Averaged out, it amounts to $2,516 for a 5-kilowatt (kW) photovoltaic (PV) rooftop system — essentially a 50 cent per watt surcharge on solar.
These figures come from a January report issued by SunRun (sunrunhome.com), a nationwide solar leasing company. Since its release, the DOE and a number of state and local jurisdictions have begun to take action.
In tandem with a makeover of its feed-in tariff, Vermont scrapped its previous residential permitting process outright in May. Under the new system, it’s a little more difficult to register a residential PV system than it is to register a car. The Vermont Energy Act of 2011, effective July 1, puts the onus on utilities. Small-scale solar customers (smaller than 5-kW systems) are required to submit a registration form and a grid-connection-compliance certificate, neither of which carry fees. If the utility does not object within a 10-day period, the customer can proceed with construction.
Around the same time, Colorado passed the much-needed Fair Permit Act. Prior to the reform, Colorado’s permitting fee levels and issuance times varied wildly. A 2011 Vote Solar Initiative report showed that Colorado Springs or Denver residents could expect to pay less than $250 and wait less than two days to certify a PV system. But in nearby Erie, expenses could add up to over $2,000. And in Cherry Hills Village, a month-long wait was the norm. Furthermore, only eight jurisdictions in the state had fixed fees — there were arbitrarily set costs in all others. With the Fair Permit Act in place, there is a $500 cap on residential permit fees and a $1,000 cap on commercial system fees. Additionally, local governments are prohibited from charging more than their actual costs for systems greater than 2 MW. The legislation, which covers both PV and solar thermal technologies, does not address issuance time.
The DOE is also in on the effort to reform permitting — in fact, it may have provided the impetus by requesting granular data on soft solar costs, spurring the SunRun report. In June, DOE announced $27.5 million in funding to streamline and digitize permitting and installations. The fund- ing falls under the umbrella of the SunShot Initiative, tasked with bringing solar to “grid parity” by 2020. SunShot Director Ramamoorthy Ramesh sees Vermont and Colorado, along with cities such as San Diego, as leaders that will provide a blueprint for hundreds of other jurisdictions around the country. “To put it in a very euphemistic way, the [permitting] evolution is beginning,” Ramesh said. “We would like to bring the cost structure and the time structure down by a significant amount — by about 70 to 75 percent. The [SunShot] team has put in very, very aggressive milestones.”
To help achieve these reductions, the DOE set aside $15 million to encourage innovation in IT systems, local zoning and building codes and regulations. Another $12.5 million was allocated for a competitive challenge for cities and counties, called the Rooftop Solar Challenge (eere.energy.gov/solarchallenge). Award winners were not available at press time.