Streamlined permitting makes solar easier in western Pa

PennFuture streamlines rooftop solarSolar is easier to install in a cluster of 24 western Pennsylvania communities thanks to streamlined permitting and an effort to reduce soft costs associated with solar installations.

PennFuture, a Pennsylvania public interest organization, received funding from the U.S. Department of Energy’s SunShot initiative last year to reduce the soft costs of solar in the western part of the state.

“Our program was smaller and a little different from what a lot of other states are doing,” said Evan Endres, a project manager with PennFuture.

The organization worked directly with administrative bodies in 24 municipalities and counties, including Pittsburgh, Stowe, Green Tree, Forest Hill and others, to streamline the solar application and approval process.

“We wanted to create a system so installers could expect some consistency between municipalities,” Endres said. “We worked in some compact urban areas and neighborhoods, in sprawling suburban areas and even some rural parts of the state.”

All 24 communities were able to collaborate and come to agreements on how they would handle applications to install rooftop solar panels so they would easier, faster and cheaper to install.

“A lot of the communities are still processing this,” Endres said. “But they basically treat solar as an accessory use, which avoids the need for a lengthy approval process.”

He said early adopters used to have to go to zoning boards and dispel misperceptions that solar is noisy or will reflect light into neighbor’s windows, Endres said.

Those days are past in western Pennsylvania, he said. “The permitting also treats solar as an electrical device – which really is what it is."

Solar arrays used to take some real construction and design effort, but now systems are pre-engineered and come in kits that are easy and fast to install. They’re more like water heaters than home additions, Endres said. And that’s how these 24 communities are starting to treat solar.

“It allows for a process that avoids multiple inspections,” he said. There’s just one inspection.

With this success under PennFuture’s belt, Endres said the organization is applying for another grant to take on the rest of the state and maybe help all 2,600 of the Pennsylvania’s governing bodies adopt better practices for permitting solar.

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