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Love Clean Solar Energy, But Hate Messy Paperwork? Help is On the Way

  • by
  • August 2, 2013
  • 12:00 pm
Love Clean Solar Energy, But Hate Messy Paperwork? Help is On the Way

by Peter Lehner, Executive Director, NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council)

When I put up solar panels on my house several years ago, the process was, if I may speak plainly, a royal pain. In the end, it was worth it to be able to generate my own, pollution-free energy, but every step seemed designed to make my life more difficult. Even after the system was installed and paid for, I still had to wait months for more inspections, new meters and other painful delays before I could officially turn it on.

If we want to get solar energy into more homes and businesses across the country, the process needs to be more efficient. In addition to being a headache for homeowners and solar contractors, procedural inefficiencies actually increase the price of solar power. While the cost of solar hardware panels and such has come down 80 percent in recent years, Americans, on average, pay nearly twice as much for solar energy as they do in Germany. Much of this price difference is due to “soft” costs, including the inefficient, expensive permitting process.

But change is afoot. Last month, New York launched a simplified solar permit that can be adopted anywhere in the state, and momentum is building across the country to bring down the cost and hassle of solar permitting, making it easier and as much as $600 cheaper to install solar power in your home.

For contractors, the permitting process makes it difficult to do business. Big solar contractors employ a team of people just to research and fill out permit applications, as well as “permit runners” whose full-time job is to bring stacks of paperwork to multiple permitting authorities, stand in lines and pay fees. Solar contractors also pay big up-front costs to buy equipment, which ties up much of their available credit. While they wait weeks or even months to install that equipment, their business is essentially paralyzed. It’s a waste of time and money, and it can keep smaller contractors and their potential customers out of the game.

In New York, a group of solar contractors, most of whom couldn’t afford to employ “expeditors” for their paperwork, approached the county government for a solution.

“There are 113 different municipalities in Long Island,” said Sail van Nostrand, the owner of Energy by Choice, and former head of the Long Island Solar Energy Industries Association. “So there were 113 different ideas about what the requirements for a solar permit should be. We never knew how many sets of drawings were required, or even what had to be in them. Some of them required surveys, which don’t even show the roof! The fees were astronomical. The paperwork was a nightmare.”

The association worked with the county government and the Long Island Power Authority to establish unified standards for solar permitting, which nine out of ten towns in Suffolk county the vast majority of Long Island’s solar market have since adopted. That standardized form served as the model for New York State’s newly minted Unified Solar Permit, a simple online form that any of the state’s 1,600-plus cities, towns and villages can adopt for residential solar installations. The streamlined permit recommends, among other things, a single fee, a single inspection and a decision within 14 days.

Vermont has taken things a step further by eliminating the need for a permit altogether. If you want to put in a small-scale residential solar installation in Vermont, you fill out a one-page registration form. That’s it. No fees, no permit. The registration process takes only ten days, allowing customers to get their systems up and running quickly and freeing up capital for contractors so their businesses can keep rolling. Though the state doesn’t have much by way of rebates, tax breaks or other solar incentives, it’s not going to kill you with paperwork. And that little efficiency makes a big difference for consumers and contractors.

“We arguably have the lowest soft costs in the country,” says Andrew Savage of All Earth Renewables, in Williston, Vermont.

Making solar permitting more efficient across the country could help bring down the cost of solar energy nationwide. At SolarPermit.org, some 800 permitting authorities, covering 90 percent of the solar market, are posting their permitting requirements, making it easier for contractors to figure out what paperwork they need.

Our friends at Vote Solar, together with the Interstate Renewable Energy Council, have developed a set of nine best practices for solar permitting that can bring down the cost of permitting by as much as 60 percent as much as $600 per home. At their new website, Project Permit, you can find out how easy it is to get a solar permit where you live and if it’s not, they give you the resources you need to get the ball rolling.

We need to make clean energy an easy option for homes and business. Eliminating wasteful red tape by creating a sensible, unified permitting process will make it simpler and less expensive for homeowners and businesses to use solar power. The more solar power we produce, the more energy dollars stay in our communities; the more good, local jobs we create (although perhaps not for permit runners); and the faster we speed the transition to a cleaner, more efficient energy system that reduces pollution and helps stabilize the climate.

This post is part of NRDC’s Wasteland series, featuring people, towns, businesses and industries that are finding innovative ways to cut waste, boost efficiency and save money, time and valuable resources.

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Photo Credit: Thinkstock

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51 comments

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4:49PM PDT on Aug 28, 2013

Good!

6:11AM PDT on Aug 19, 2013

thanks for sharing :)

7:04PM PDT on Aug 8, 2013

My city will not allow Photo voltaic panels to be attached to a structure at all it appears they are unable to find a way to tax the energy generated. I can use the GE panels that you plug into an outlet as long as I move them every 10 days and do not generate more than I use.

1:58PM PDT on Aug 8, 2013

I guess there are economic forces that prefer people not to use solar panels, and that partially explains why so much paperwork is needed...

8:38PM PDT on Aug 6, 2013

Lobbyist and Government are holding us back from enjoying solar energies

10:17AM PDT on Aug 6, 2013

The biggest reason that solar energy is so expensive is that the government will not give out enough incentive to buy into it. They have too much money riding on their coal and oil investments. That is the only reason people. You don't have to be an economist to realize this. You have to have a heartbeat to realize this.

2:52AM PDT on Aug 6, 2013

Thank you for sharing.

2:02AM PDT on Aug 6, 2013

ty

2:00AM PDT on Aug 6, 2013

ty

5:04PM PDT on Aug 5, 2013

Some companies offer solar leases. You can avoid the permit hassle, let the solar lease company deal with it, put solar panels on your roof, maintain, and repair them as needed, insure them, and charge you no upfront cost. You lock in a lower rate for 20 years than what utilities charge.

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