Easy Does It: The Benefits of a Simplified Solar Permitting Process

These days many municipalities and other authorities having jurisdiction (AHJs) are facing tight budgets and staff shortages. At the same time, many AHJs are experiencing dramatic increases in rooftop solar permit applications. Simplifying the solar permitting process is a prime way that AHJs can save time and money, while still promoting economic development in their communities.

According to IREC, nearly 85,000 homes installed solar photovoltaic (PV) systems in 2012, representing 529 MW and a 61 percent increase over 2011. These numbers are only going up. On
the sunny island of Oahu, Hawaii alone, the Department of Planning and Permitting issued an impressive 16,715 solar PV permits in 2012, according to the Honolulu Civil Beat. This was a
dramatic increase over the fewer than 4,000 permits the Department issued in 2011.

At the same time, residential PV prices fell 27 percent to $5.04 per Watt in 2012. In the first quarter of 2013, they dropped below $5.00 per Watt. Decreasing prices, along with various
state, federal and local policies promoting solar, will continue to drive the rapid growth of the solar market.

The growing popularity of solar has direct and immediate impacts on the workload of permitting staff. As a result, simplifying building and electrical permitting processes will likely become
increasingly important to more AHJs. Many AHJs have already taken steps to modify their permitting processes to allow them to review and issue solar permits more efficiently.

“It was really beneficial just to lay out the process,” said Kristin Sullivan, the Solar Program Coordinator for the City of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, referring to the City’s Guidebook
for Solar Photovoltaic Projects in Philadelphia
. “It helped installers to have a clear understanding of the process and its timelines. It also helped our Licenses and Inspections department interact more easily with applicants. L&I employees could utilize the checklists and documents to help them quickly approve a permit, deny a permit, or ask for more information. This helped the process
move forward more smoothly for everyone.”

“We accept applications in many forms, including those based on California State guidelines, local International Code Council Tri-Chapter Uniform Code Committee, and the Solar ABCs forms,” said Don Hughes, Senior Building Inspector in the County of Santa Clara’s Department of Planning and Development. “When the applications are properly completed, all of the required information for a successful expedited plan review is provided. That saves time for both the applicant and the County.”

While an influx of solar permit applications may drive these modifications, AHJs have often been able to implement changes that improve the process for all permit applications, not just for solar.

“We have to process a huge volume of permits,” said Boris Sursky, Roof Plans Processor for Miami-Dade County. “Our e-permitting Concurrent Plans Processing system allows us to manage this volume efficiently. It saves on travel time for contractors and saves everyone from dealing with lots of paper. It also allows our staff to do multiple simultaneous reviews, which speeds things up significantly.”

Expediting the solar permit review process

AHJs around the United States have found that they can offer expedited permit review for the majority of residential PV installations in their jurisdictions while still protecting public health and safety. Some AHJs provide fast-track treatment for systems that meet certain specified criteria, approving permits over-the-counter or within a few days. Templates for such quick review already exist, such as the Expedited Permit Process for PV Systems by Bill Brooks, published by the Solar America Board for Codes and Standards (Solar ABCs).

“Our over-the-counter process allows us to easily scale up and down depending on the number of applications we receive, which depends on the varying levels of incentives available for solar,” said Jessica Scott, the Solar Program Coordinator for the City and County of Denver, Colorado, a certified Solar Friendly Community. “With our streamlined process, we were able to process 800 solar
permits over the course of two months when incentives were high.”

Other AHJs have taken different approaches to speeding up their process. Some AHJs offer expedited treatment for systems that fall within pre-approved templates, as in the City of Honolulu’s Materials and Methods Approval (MMA) process. Others process permits from pre-approved installers more quickly, such as those with a certain number of successful installations under their belts.

Speaking about the various permitting process improvements that the City of Santa Clara, California, has undertaken over the years, Sheila Lee, a City Building Official, said, “anytime we have adopted a streamlining effort, we have seen significant benefits in reduced staff time as well as time for the installers. For example, while the permit process used to require review by three members of our staff, the entire process can now be done by just one plan checker in our offices.”

Improving the inspection process

Inspection is when the rubber meets the road for the approval of a solar installation. While undeniably important to ensuring safety, inspections can also be time-consuming for AHJ
staff—especially when the installer is not adequately prepared. To make sure that the process goes smoothly, AHJs have come up with various improvements.

Miami-Dade County has an especially robust online system to deal with all County inspections. “I see this system as a win-win for contractors and our inspectors,” said Boris Sursky. “It makes the process more efficient for everyone and helps us stay accountable internally. For example, because a contractor can easily cancel a scheduled inspection online up until 8:00 am on
the day of the inspection, an inspector doesn’t waste any time going to a site that isn’t ready, and the installer doesn’t fail the inspection and have to pay a re-inspection fee.”

Other AHJs offer checklists and other guidance materials to installers in an effort to help them prepare for the inspection so the inspector does not have to waste time when she or he arrives on site. This sort of guidance can be useful for installers, and it can also double as an internal resource to make sure inspectors understand and apply requirements consistently.

Many AHJs have also determined that they can ensure that a solar system has been installed safely with just one inspection. For AHJs interested in encouraging their inspectors to move to one inspection or to learn more about PV installations, there are a number of resources available, including Photovoltaic Online Training for Code Officials. PV Online Training instructs users in reliable field inspection practices and endorses efficient permit processes for residential PV installations.

Coordinating regionally

Consistent technical and procedural requirements—regionally, statewide, or even nationally—can offer significant efficiency benefits for both AHJs and the solar industry. AHJs within a state or region can look to their neighbors for examples of successful change rather than wasting valuable resources reinventing the wheel.

When consistent forms and processes are in place, it does not just make installers’ lives easier. As installers across the region become familiar with a more standardized set of requirements, they ask fewer questions, submit fewer faulty applications and are better prepared for inspections—all of which save time and resources for AHJs.

The East Bay Green Corridor’s Rapid PV Process is a recent example of a successful regional collaboration to improve the permitting processes by nine California cities east of the San Francisco Bay. “Our participating cities’ commitment to consistent requirements and fast turnaround times should lead to greater satisfaction among contractors and homeowners, and more complete and accurate application packages to the AHJs,” said Carla Din, who served as Director of the East Bay Green Corridor during the development of the Rapid PV Process. “We believe this will result in a greater number of installations and overall benefit to the local economy.”

“On the day we held our press conference announcing Denver as a Solar Friendly Community, our phone was ringing off the hook,” said Jessica Scott. “Other cities wanted to know how we did it because they want to be able to encourage solar in their jurisdictions, too. Clean tech is the fastest growing job sector in Colorado.”

IREC and The Vote Solar Initiative have identified nine Solar Permitting Best Practices, which offer AHJs ideas on how to simplify their permitting processes. Together, IREC and Vote Solar offer
a wealth of other resources for AHJs considering permitting reform. Visit IREC’s web site (www.irecusa.org/regulatory-reform/permitting) and Vote Solar’s Project Permit (projectpermit.org) for more information.