Peeling Back the Red Tape to Go Solar

Going solar isn’t as simple as having panels installed on your roof. After you select an installer, the project needs to be permitted, installed, inspected, and interconnected to the grid. Most of these steps depend on local governments and utility companies, which means the process varies based on where you live. With more than 3,000 utilities and 18,000 jurisdictions across the country, interconnection times vary widely, and can take up to several months to complete. SunShot Initiative awardees are helping streamline and simplify these processes throughout the U.S.

The Solar Foundation’s SolSmart program encourages U.S. city and county governments to implement or update local solar policies and processes and recognizes them for the efforts. It examines what types of basic policies support solar development, helps to share those observations with other communities, and rates communities based on their accomplishments.

Lead image: Maricopa County, Arizona has a bronze designation from the SolSmart program. The county is one of the most viable regions in the nation for photovoltaic and concentrated solar energy generation. Credit: The Solar Foundation

One of the most important actions SolSmart communities can take is posting a permitting checklist online. It sounds simple, but this level of transparency decreases the amount of time people spend on the phone, writing emails, or travelling to a permitting office. Posting documents online is also a simple low-cost investment for local governments that results in less staff time dedicated to handling permitting tasks.

Communities achieving the highest SolSmart rating are doing even more to speed up the solar process. This includes reducing permit turnarounds to three days or less, conducting zoning reviews to identify any barriers to solar, highlighting the ability access to solar in all major zoning categories, and training permitting and inspection staff on solar best practices.

About half of the SolSmart designees have reached the gold level—the program’s highest distinction. Among that group, some are going above and beyond the requirements. One local government is using Skype to conduct inspections, which requires as little as 15 minutes of advanced notice and saves time and money required for traveling to remote destinations.

Learn more about how your community can participate in the SolSmart program.

A SunShot Initiative project with Pacific Gas & Electric is helping to reduce the amount of red tape involved with permitting solar pojects.

Utilities also play an important role in the going-solar process, such as coordinating with a varied set of stakeholders in order to interconnect a solar energy system to the electric grid. California utility Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) led a team of solar companies, software developers, and jurisdictions to reduce complexity and time in the process. They developed online permitting, remote inspections, and automated interconnection, resulting in more than 6,000 online solar projects per month in 2016. The type of synergy created by this team is a model that can be used by utilities and jurisdictions across the country to make the going-solar process more efficient and cost effective for everyone involved.

One key technology PG&E and other utilities are tapping into is Grid Unity’s cloud-connected tool that determines a solar project’s impact on the grid. Using SunShot funds, the company developed an energy analytics platform that can assess the grid impact of any distributed energy resource project. The utility receives an instant response regarding the suitability of the circuit for the project, reducing the average interconnection process from more than 80 days down to just hours in some cases. That’s 98 percent faster than the processes used by most utilities today, allowing solar projects to start producing electricity quicker than ever before.

With nearly 45 GW of solar currently installed in the U.S. and a new solar project being installed every 84 seconds, these improvements to the going-solar process will save time and money as more Americans choose to power their lives with clean energy. From designing programs that encourage local communities and utilities to reduce red tape for American consumers and businesses, to incubating technologies that transform business processes, SunShot has been reducing the cost and complexity of going solar across the country.

Learn more about SunShot’s soft costs subprogram that addresses challenges associated with non-hardware costs of solar energy.

This article was originally published by the U.S. Department of Energy in the public domain.

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Dr. Elaine Ulrich is a program manager at the Department of Energy where she leads the SunShot balance of systems/soft costs team.  Her team which works to reduce the non-hardware (soft costs) of solar, lower barriers to solar adoption, and foster market growth through  support for state and local development and technical assistance programs; information & data assets; finance & business model development; workforce & training programs; and policy & regulatory analysis. A former American Physical Society/American Association for the Advancement of Science policy fellow, Dr. Ulrich has spent the past few years working on renewable energy. She previously held positions in the office of former U.S. Senator Ken Salazar, U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Science and Technology, the Energy Department’s Office of Strategic Planning and Analysis, and in the office of U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords, where she worked to build a comprehensive solar energy portfolio.

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