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

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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.