How California Can Lower Residential Solar Permitting Costs

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What’s one of the peskiest solar soft costs? Permitting. Yes, nearly a year after we first wrote about the issue, it’s still an issue.

Permitting remains a seemingly intractable problem, with The Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory estimating it can add $1,000 – $3,500 in cost and one month in development time to the typical residential solar installation.

But the good news is that with a little political will, permitting can be one of the easier costs to lower. And before you get worried about the need for political will, a lot can be done at the local level.

With that in mind, Vote Solar and the Sierra Club have just released a report, Simplifying Residential Solar Permitting, which rates permitting practices across Los Angeles County, an area with high solar growth. Even within that limited area, the report found, solar permitting practices vary widely. That leaves abundant room for improvement.

Vote Solar notes that the residential solar permitting process should be simple and quick, and it should reflect the municipality’s actual cost to review and issue it. Instead, permitting practices vary city to city — and across the country. The tend to be unnecessarily costly, complex, non-transparent, and time-intensive.

“While there are some cities who are real leaders on the permitting issue in L.A. County, there are many more that lag. We encourage all cities to adopt best practices and reduce costs and headaches for solar installers, customers and public agencies alike,” said Evan Gillespie, Director of Sierra Club’s My Generation Campaign, in a statement.

California enjoys favorable solar policies that have propelled it to the position of top solar state, with installations there having nearly doubled in the past year. But streamlined permitting has yet to be tackled statewide.

Susannah Churchill, Vote Solar’s West Coast Regional Director, underscored the need for local governments to tackle the issue. “With a clear policy commitment to clean energy at the state level, California leads the nation on rooftop solar. However, we have an inefficient local permitting landscape that directly undermines its clean economic development and carbon reduction goals. Cutting red tape, reducing unneeded fees and otherwise standardizing permitting practices are simple and effective ways that local governments can support Californian investment in solar energy.”

For the study, the Sierra Club assessed 90 Los Angeles County municipalities and 11 Los Angeles incorporated areas against six best practices from Vote Solar’s Project Permit tool. The results: San Fernando, Temple City, Long Beach, Palos Verdes Estates, Hidden Hills, Santa Monica, Downey, and Lancaster lead in solar-friendly permitting practices with “Best” scores. The City of Los Angeles received a “Good” grade, which is expected to improve in the coming months as the city implements Mayor Garcetti’s “Sunny Skies” initiative. The not-so-good news? Another 40 municipalities received “Worst” scores, indicating significant need for improvement.

The biggest problem, the report found, remains the lack of standardization. Even within Los Angeles this is an issue, with nearly every city in the county having a unique permit approval process.

But there’s hope for not only Los Angeles but the whole state of California. It comes in the form of Assembly Bill 2188, which would standardize and streamline permitting practices statewide, shortening approval times and lowering costs.

The bill, which already easily passed in the Assembly, must now pass in the Senate and be signed by the Governor. It enjoys widespread bipartisan support from a coalition of business associations, solar companies, environmental groups, and local elected officials.

California, the nation’s solar leader, is setting an example for the rest of the country with this bill. With this kind of legislation in place, the state can not only keep its #1 position but provide a model for others to emulate.