A recent report from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBL) looks at how the permitting process can impact the costs and time it takes to install solar. The report, “The Impact of City-level Permitting Processes on Residential Photovoltaic Installation Prices and Development Times: An Empirical Analysis of Solar Systems in California Cities,” determines that city-level permitting processes can have a big impact on the cost of solar and project completion time.
“A typical PV permitting process in the United States may involve many local government departmental reviews—such as building, electrical, mechanical, plumbing, fire, structural, zoning, and aesthetic reviews — as well as a permitting fee,” the report states. Then there are the site inspections and final approval required by local agencies and local utilities — more than 18,000 different processes nationwide. Sometimes the permitting processes can be entirely different for neighbors who live just across the street from each other.
Since the “soft costs” of solar (which include permitting and other aspects that aren’t part of the solar array’s hardware) now account for more than 50 percent of a home’s PV system, it shows there’s a lot of room for improvement. That’s why programs like Solar Friendly Communities in Colorado, developed by the Colorado Solar Energy Industries Association (COSEIA) are helping to make it easier, cheaper and quicker to go solar. Solar Friendly Communities and other projects are part of the Department of Energy’s Rooftop Solar Challenge to reduce the costs of solar as part of the SunShot Initiative.
LBL’s study examined how permitting processes affected one of the nation’s largest solar markets, California, and how permitting processes differed across the state. “The study uses a unique dataset from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Rooftop Solar Challenge Program, which includes city-level permitting process ‘scores,’ plus data from the California Solar Initiative and the U.S. Census. Econometric methods are used to quantify the price and development-time effects of city-level permitting processes on more than 3,000 PV installations across 44 California cities in 2011,” according to the study.
“The results suggest that cities with the most favorable (i.e., highest-scoring) permitting practices can reduce average residential PV prices by 27 cents to 77 cents per watt (4 percent to 12 percent of median PV prices in California) compared to cities with the most onerous (i.e., lowest-scoring) permitting practices, depending on the regression model used,” the study said. At the high end that could mean a 5.5 kilowatt system installed in a city with the best permitting practices could cost about $4,325 less than a system in a city with worse permitting processes than California.
Similarly, streamlined permitting processes can reduce the time it takes to install a system by up to 24 days, according to the report. However, LBL says the data isn’t as clear on that front.
The study made a number of recommendations to improve permitting on a larger scale — hopefully making it easier, cheaper and quicker. Among the recommendations it called for developing regional or state-wide permitting processes; creating clear guidelines and checklists for permitting; using simple, standardized online application forms; minimizing the number of departmental reviews; limiting wait times; and lowering permit fees.
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