C&I, DER, Rooftop

New solar permit software could reduce costs and expand residential markets

Solar Foundation and the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) are joining the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), several national residential solar companies, and other nonprofit organizations to develop new automated permit software for distributed solar and storage, reducing the cost of solar installations and saving resources for local governments and taxpayers.

NREL was awarded $695,000 in new funding from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Technology Transitions, Technology Commercialization Fund to develop and deploy the Solar Automated Permit Processing (SolarAPP) software platform. The intent is to dramatically reduce the time and cost of the permitting application review and approval process, which in turn will decrease customer cancellation rates and expand solar energy development and solar job growth nationwide.

The partners working with NREL on the SolarAPP software include the California Solar + Storage Association, Institute for Building Technology and Safety (IBTS), Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), The Solar Foundation, SunPower, Sunrun, Tesla, and Vivint Solar.

These groups are active participants in the SolarAPP Campaign, a national initiative of The Solar Foundation and SEIA which seeks a fundamental reshaping of solar permitting at the federal, state, and local levels. The goal is to allow most routine rooftop solar projects to receive instantaneous approval and efficient inspections, while enhancing safety and reliability.

“Over the past decade, NREL research has shown that while the cost of PV modules and other hardware has declined, non-hardware ‘soft’ costs remain relatively constant. The SolarAPP software will help address key soft cost challenges by providing both AHJs and installers a standardized online portal to complete and manage permitting and inspection processes,” said Kristen Ardani, Solar Analysis Sub-program Lead at NREL.

“Inefficient permitting can cause frustration and added costs for Americans who just want to go solar,” said Abigail Ross Hopper, President and CEO of the Solar Energy Industries Association. “A streamlined, easy-to-use solution such as SolarAPP can cut down on burdensome applications and connect solar projects to the grid faster. A more reliable permitting experience will help both inspectors and solar customers save time and money without sacrificing safety or quality.”

While the cost of residential solar installations has decreased more than 70% over the last ten years, costs are still much higher in the United States than in other mature markets, largely due to non-hardware “soft costs.” The direct and indirect costs of permitting, inspection, and interconnection, including efforts spent acquiring customers who cancel before a permit is issued, can add about $1 per Watt, or $7,000, to the cost of a typical residential system.

Nationwide, there are over 20,000 authorities having jurisdiction (AHJs) with distinct permitting and inspection requirements, application costs, and approval times. The SolarAPP platform will provide a streamlined process that will increase efficiency and reduce the time and cost of a solar permit, leading in turn to lower cancellation rates.

The platform could also benefit local governments, which face budget constraints and growing workloads to keep up with the accelerated pace of solar energy development. Automated permitting will reduce time spent and increase permit revenues, allowing AHJs to focus their resources on post-installation and inspections.

The SolarAPP platform will build on existing software capabilities at NREL to do the following:

  • Provide a flexible, web-based solar permitting tool for residential systems.
  • Encourage the standardization of permitting processes, while allowing for some flexibility to produce applications that meet the specific requirements of AHJs.
  • Evaluate applications and design plans for safety certification and code compliance.
  • Offer opportunities to incorporate energy storage and expand to other market segments, such as solar thermal and commercial systems.

The SolarAPP initiative builds on previous and existing programs to reduce soft costs, including the SolSmart program that provides designation and no-cost technical assistance for local governments to open up solar markets.