The popularity of residential solar power systems continues with steady growth nationwide as people looking to take control of their electricity costs turn to renewable energy. However, for local municipalities, the sheer volume of installations can pose problems at building department permitting offices.
I have spoken with building department officials who have seen an increase of five to ten times in solar permit applications over the last few years. It is a tough task for them to keep up with the volume with no increase in budget or resources.
In California, efforts are under way to turn this situation into an opportunity through policies and regulations that streamline small business and residential rooftop solar permitting as a way to expedite even more installations and help achieve local government goals for energy efficiency, greenhouse gas reductions, and climate actions plans.
Expedited solar permitting
California Assembly Bill 2188, passed in September 2014, mandates state municipalities to adopt standardized solar photovoltaic (PV) permitting processes—the first such legislation in the nation—and other states can do likewise. It is a way for local governments to reduce their paperwork and costs for approving what are typically fairly simple rooftop solar systems.
For the solar industry, expedited permitting is recognition that installations are becoming more uniform. Even though there are thousands of companies installing rooftop solar, they are all starting to use similar products and methods for building their jobs. These standardized methods are easy to expedite because they do not require any additional structural or electrical upgrades, in most cases. Also, most all contractors now conform to product safety standard UL 2703 for racking, clamping, and grounding devices that significantly increase the reliability of attachments and flashing methods and virtually alleviate the concern for any pre-inspection.
Ultimately, the development of industrywide safety standards and better mounting products makes simplified inspection a no-brainer for jurisdictions. Contractors and consumers both benefit with a single final inspection conducted after the job and shorter installation times resulting in reduced project costs.
For building departments, there are huge advantages for increased office efficiency. Accepting and processing permit applications online rather than at the front desk can significantly reduce the amount of paperwork around the office and allow plan reviewers to analyze more jobs throughout the day. Also, instituting a flat solar permit fee—which properly accounts for staff time—can be a real benefit for contractors, when they know exactly how much a fee is going to be before even looking at the specs.
Resources for cities and counties
The Center for Sustainable Energy offers municipalities technical assistance in understanding and implementing streamlined solar permitting processes as well as webinars and in-person training. You can explore the California Solar Permitting Guidebook and download free templates for creating uniform and expedited permitting and inspection procedures.
Each town and county is different and knows how best to run its building department. It is not easy when solar PV application volumes skyrocket and they do not get any extra staff or resources. However, for those building departments that look at solar permitting and inspection procedures as a means to increase efficiency and reduce costs, things become easier rather than a burden.