Germany, a leader in renewable energy, recently set a world record when it produced 22 GW of power on May 26th, 2012. At that point in time, half of the country's electricity was generated from solar. Germany's current capacity for solar energy reaches about 28 GW and the country aims to reach 66GW by 2030.
By the end of 2011, Germany had about 21.6 times more solar power system installations per capita than the United States.
Why is it that Germany, which has a much lower level of solar radiation than the United States, proportionally dwarfs the U.S. when it comes to solar installations?
What is Germany Doing Differently?
In addition to creating an attractive Feed-In Tariff (FIT) program to incentivize residential solar, the streamlined permitting process in Germany has given way to widespread adoption of solar energy.
Germany has successfully scaled basic design and installation processes, driving down the cost and wait-time associated with residential solar. Moreover, the country has actually eliminated permitting for standard residential solar, which is part of the reason residential solar is so prominent in the country.
Standardizing permitting and installation procedures to streamline these processes has helped make Germany a world leader in solar energy. In Germany, it's not uncommon for a person to contact a solar company and have a system on their roof in less than a week- sometimes in a few days.
Meanwhile, in the United States, customers frequently find themselves forking over hundreds, if not thousands of dollars in fees, undergoing a series of unnecessary inspections, and waiting weeks to have standard photovoltaic systems installed on their homes.
The United States needs to follow Germany's lead by streamlining the permitting process for standard residential solar applications. This would make residential solar considerably easier, cheaper, and more convenient for consumers in the United States.
Permitting in the United States:
Though the price of solar products is decreasing and solar adoption is steadily increasing in the United States, the costly, inefficient permitting processes are a burden to the buyer and impede progress of the solar industry at large.
Before installing a residential solar system, a permit must be obtained from the local Authority Having Jurisdiction, also known as an AHJ. Typically, permit applications for standard residential solar installations must be submitted to the AHJ in person. SunRun recommends a standard online application for solar permitting, which would drastically simplify the process. It would be much more efficient if all AHJs utilized a standard web-based application to streamline this process.
The permitting process varies too much across geographical location. This inconsistency between AHJs breeds a series of avoidable obstacles that are holding back solar adoption in the United States.
With so many permitting authorities sprinkled across the country, the discrepancy between standards produces hoops to jump through. It seems that every city or Authority Having Jurisdiction has a different interpretation of codes and standards. Some even craft their own legislation.
Applications often undergo a succession of reviews by multiple departments, which commonly conduct their own inspections. Permit applications are then subjected to various municipal inspections that are neither necessary nor efficient. In an admirable attempt to guarantee safety, local municipalities frequently include extensive fire inspections and components to the system (i.e. disconnects) that are not needed, further complicating the process.
Unnecessary inspections in conjunction with other soft costs associated with residential solar create a barrier to adoption for potential customers. Some municipalities are able to process a permit for less than $300, while others call for thousands. Part of the problem is that all these AHJs have different fees that are often based on their own set of criteria, including those unnecessary inspections.
More often than not, the sum of these fees is too high because they are not in line with the actual processing cost to the Authority Having Jurisdiction. SunRun reports that customers incur an average cost of $2,516 for permitting and inspection of a residential solar system. [i] Most of these soft costs are not necessary for standard residential solar systems.
While an applicant for a residential system in Germany may only wait four days to have a system installed, this process takes weeks in the United States. Sometimes months.
This inconsistency between jurisdictions creates difficulties for buyers, installers, and AHJs.
Installers have more important things to do than deal with municipalities that aren't knowledgeable about photovoltaic installations. Cities have enough on their plates to try to come up with their own filing systems, codes, and protocol. Customers need a convenient, cost-effective system of permitting that will get the solar system on their roof as soon as possible.
The entire solar industry suffers due to the lack of structural coherence in the permitting processes in the United States. With a standardized system in the United States, AHJs will operate more efficiently, saving everyone valuable time and resources.
What the United States needs to do:
Systemic changes need to be made to encourage the adoption of renewable energy. These systemic changes can and must come from the Department of Energy. The Department of Energy has already established a plan to streamline permitting through the Solar America Board for Codes and Standards, also known as the Solar ABCs.
According to the New York Times, the Solar ABCs "links policy makers, solar panel manufacturers, installers and consumers to create a central clearinghouse for information on solar building codes and best practices."
Standard residential solar systems are the same whether you're in California or Montana, so why doesn't the Department of Energy incentivize municipalities to adopt standardized codes and protocol set forth by the Solar ABCs? Eliminating the added inspections by local AHJs and streamlining the whole process will make solar adoption more workable for everyone.
If the permitting protocol was homogeneous across the country, reducing the soft costs and wait time for standard residential systems, solar energy would be able to reach an extensively broader demographic. This can only be possible with a cooperative effort on the part of policy makers and industry leaders, changing this dynamic from a conflict to a united course of action.
The BIG Picture:
Grid parity is the point at which the levelized cost of solar electricity is less than or equal to the cost of grid electricity.
The structural inefficiency of solar permitting raises the overall cost of solar installation for consumers, pushing grid parity further into the future.
Grid parity should be a priority for our society, yet the structural barriers encountered in the permitting processes across the nation do not reflect that grid parity is of much concern. Just as the wait time for the individual's installation is dragged out, the timeframe between now and grid parity is extended.
By implementing an expedited permitting process nationwide, we can tear down many of the existing barriers to solar adoption in the United States.
What steps can we take to realize this goal?
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