How to Lower the High Cost of Residential Solar Permitting


At a talk at Intersolar North America, “21st Century Permitting: Today’s Effort to Modernize Permitting and Slash Soft Costs,” five panelists discuss the necessity of a streamlined solar permitting process. The goal is for permitting to become transparent, quick, less expensive, and all in one place online.


For a while now one of the biggest — and most costly — challenges potential solar homeowners have faced has been going through the permitting and inspection process. Non-hardware “soft costs” make up 64% of the total costs of installing solar. A big chunk of that is due to the permitting process, which is not only expensive but can cause an average eight-week delay.

The policies surrounding permitting are also inconsistent from place to place, with such a variety of policies and steps that it can take several sites and a 55 page guidebook to even find the information relevant to a specific location. A nationwide study found that inconsistent local permitting standards can add over $2,500 to the cost of each home solar installation, and one in three solar installers avoid selling in an average of 3.5 jurisdictions due to a difficult permitting process.


At Intersolar North America, in a talk titled “21st Century Permitting: Today’s Effort to Modernize Permitting and Slash Soft Costs,” several panelists discussed their aspiration to get that 55-page guide down to a one-page checklist — although even two pages will suffice.


Each of the five panelists emphasized the importance of streamlining the permitting process. Ken Alex, a senior policy advisor to California governor Jerry Brown and director of the office of planning and research, said that the goal was to build a model permit and make it streamlined for every jurisdiction. He called for a permit that was transparent and online, with a one-page checklist for basic structural issues, fines, and fees. 


Joshua Honeycutt, an analyst for the DOE SunShot Initiative, expressed that what we are missing is coherence. He gave several examples of states that are making strides in permitting due to a more unified and coherent system, such as New York, which has a statewide unified permit, and Washington, where the requirements to go through engineering checks were removed. California, on the other hand, is still pushing reforms to improve the current permitting process. AB 2188 in California calls for a streamlined process that hopefully will be implemented by September 20, 2015. 


The solution seems clear and simple enough, and with many examples of the benefits of streamlining — such as in the states mentioned above and, of course, Germany — this goal does not seem too out of reach. The biggest challenge, says Honeycutt, has been implementation. The soft cost of permitting has been an issue on people’s minds for a long time now, and yet trying to realize the solution has been stretched out over years. Another issue directly tied to permitting that was mentioned by Walker Wright, Director of Government Affairs at Sunrun, is awareness. 


Alison Healy, the Renewable Energy Program Manager for San Francisco, and formerly Sonoma County, talked about how the local government in Sonoma was able to streamline permitting. She said that one of the biggest factors in their success was building relationships. Communication between contractors, the county population, building inspectors, and city government made streamlining a lot easier. The next step after that was follow-up.


The talk was focused mainly on what local governments can do to make permitting easier, but the panelists also mentioned other projects, not all necessarily run by people directly involved with government. Among those mentioned was the Rooftop Solar Challenge, VoteSolar, and the National Permitting Database. These projects have helped, but only to an extent. Now it’s up to the local governments to meet them halfway.