New study shows permitting issues holding solar back in US

Excerpted from Clean Power Finance reportOne of the things that is holding residential solar deployment back across the U.S. is the multitude of permitting processes across the U.S. And it’s not just one or two. There are thousands, with each authority having jurisdiction (AHJ) over having its own rules and requirements. For instance, a new study out today by Clean Power Finance, supported by the Department of Energy’s SunShot Initiative looked at 273 residential solar installers and the permitting process behind 546 home installations. Among other things the study found that permitting usually involved 2 agencies—up to 5—each with different processes.

“We asked each of the 273 installers about their two most recent installations (and not what was their average cost of installation for the past 12 months). The advantage of doing this method is that the data is much more recent,” said James Tong, Clean Power Finance senior director. The study found that the majority of installers ended up charging a flat per watt fee that changed with the system size. The average across all systems was $4.90 per watt, while the median was $4.60 per watt. “This indicates that size of system varies more widely and that larger systems, which may be relatively few, are elevating the average.”

The study found that 33 percent of installers avoid installing in certain areas within their existing larger service area—on average about 3.5 jurisdictions within that area. “We asked respondents in the 12 states covered in the survey about the areas in which they operate,” Tong said. “This is an important point [because]…there’s a good chance that permitting is even more difficult in areas in which are respondents are not operating.”

The study also found that installers spent an average of 14.25 hours of work to complete their end of the solar permitting process. Meanwhile the AHJs took an average of eight weeks to complete their work related to permitting an installation. Part of the reason is that AHJs are not aware of best practices for solar installations. However, such resources exist. “The Solar ABCS provide  a set of permitting guidelines for municipalities. This project, which is funded by the DOE, has been going on for years,” Tong said. “But awareness of it among AHJs (and, to a lesser extent, installers) is low. Last summer, the California Governor’s Office published guidelines for permitting. Awareness of this also is low.”

Part of the issue behind this is that the outreach effort has mainly relied on seminars and conferences, according to Tong. “But getting people to attend is difficult and often expensive,” he said. He suggested that a website and an information repository could better serve AHJs permitting needs and inquiries. “We believe the National Solar Permitting Database can serve these functions,” he said.

Tong also acknowledged efforts underway in various cities and under the Rooftop Solar Challenge to reduce the cost and time of permitting solar. “So there are efforts, but overall industry awareness of them has been low, in general,” he said.