Residential Solar Installation Permits Can Be Frustrating to Secure

This is a lot of grumbling these days in the solar industry about the difficulty some solar installers have securing building permits. I am sure that California is among the worst in the country. Having said that, I don’t think it is fair to demonize building departments entirely over the process of securing a solar installation permit.

Some of the regulations have grown out of government’s natural tendency to supersize, but government is also charged with protecting the public from the unskilled contractors, solar is no different.

The solar permitting barriers are also being driven sometimes by a lack of understanding by local code officials. Solar installations have a 40 some year history in this country, but it was only very recently that solar installations became so widespread and popular.

There are several larger solar firms that have employees solely dedicated to securing solar installations permits. When we say solar energy creates jobs, this is not exactly what anyone had in mind. One example of the solar permitting process going overboard is evident by this California solar company. Verego Solar has some fifteen employees are dedicated solely to researching and tailoring solar installation permit applications to meet the bureaucratic idiosyncrasies of the dozens of towns in the company’s market according to a story in the NY times. And because most jurisdictions need applications to be submitted in person, Verengo employs two “solar installation permit runners” whose only job is to take permit packs and physically drive them around, stand in line, and pay the fees.

In a new study, the solar industry estimates that the permit dance adds an average of $2,500 in costs to each solar installation, and streamlining things could provide a $1 billion stimulus to the residential and commercial solar power market over the next five years.

The solar industry’s analysis, which has been shared with officials at the White House and the Energy Department, urges the federal government to create solar incentive programs that would nudge municipalities to adopt common solar codes, fee structures and filing procedures. Germany, Japan and some other countries that aggressively promote solar power have already used such streamlined permitting.

Administration officials said that they were seriously studying the issue with solar installation permitting, and that they planned to reveal initiatives and funding opportunities to address it.

The analysis suggests that solar products installation permit standardization could make solar power still typically an expensive proposition even with various subsidies competitive for roughly half of the nation’s 128 million homes within just two years. Today, only about 80,000 households have installed solar power in the United States.

The Energy Department has already begun tackling the lack of standardization in the solar industry, in part through its Solar America Board of Codes and Standards, established under the department’s Solar Energy Technologies Program in 2007.

The solar ABC’s, as the program is known, links policy makers, solar panel manufacturers, solar installers and consumers to create a central clearinghouse for information on solar building codes and best practices.

But the solar installers installation analysis urges the Obama administration to do more to encourage local officials to adopt the codes and procedures outlined by the solar ABC’s including the creation of a prize program similar to the Race to the Top Fund, a $4.35 billion program created as part of the 2009 stimulus package to encourage and reward states for efforts to reform education.

Such a contest would provide grants to cities in specific solar states that show the most progress adopting solar installation permitting standards. The paper also calls for the creation of a common online permitting tool and funds for local education and advocacy efforts aimed at further streamlining solar panel installation. It also seeks to standardize formulas for calculating solar installation permit fees, which can range from nothing in some communities to more than $2,000 in others.