How to Initiate Solar Permitting Reform in Four Easy Steps

Solar permitting is but one small, easily overlooked piece of the solar installation process. However, because we have upwards of 25,000 local jurisdictions in the country, there are staggering possibilities for variations of local permitting procedures.  This means that permitting costs and filing requirements often vary widely from one jurisdiction to the next, which inevitably drives up costs for solar and creates unintentional barriers to market growth.

To address these challenges, many local jurisdictions around the country have been leading the way to find innovative, collective solutions to streamline solar permitting in a safe and effective way.  In fact, we have highlighted some of their efforts in a 2012 Report titled Sharing Success: Emerging Approaches to Efficient Rooftop Solar Permitting. Nevertheless, there is still so much more to do.  If your jurisdiction has not already done so, now is a perfect time to reduce inefficiencies in the solar permitting process.

We understand the challenges inherent in solar permitting reform. We know that city and county staff are already overworked and often lack funding and resources to update processes and train staff.  However, a little effort up front can yield big payoffs.  Simplifying the solar permitting process is a way that your local jurisdiction can ultimately save time and money as it reduces staff time needed to process applications.  And this may not be as daunting a task as it first seems, there are many valuable resources available that have done much of the work for you.  Think about breaking it down in the following steps:

1) Start with the basics – Get to know your own solar permitting process.
Even if you are already familiar with your jurisdiction’s solar permitting processes, take the time to write down all the requirements and procedural aspects, think about how many steps are involved and what could be simplified without sacrificing safety. Are there common complaints or suggestions that you hear from permitting applicants?  How long does the entire process take?  How much does it cost?  If you’re not familiar with your local processes, start asking these questions to those who are.

2) Use state and national best practices.
Luckily, you don’t have to recreate the wheel. There are many resources that can greatly reduce the workload of solar permitting reform.  IREC has published several recently that offer a good place to start: Best Practices in Residential Solar PermittingSimplifying the Solar Permitting Process: Residential Solar Permitting Best Practices ExplainedSimplifying the Solar Permitting Process: The Importance of ConsistencySolar Permitting Checklistsand coming soon, a Residential Solar Model Inspection Checklist.  These resources have been designed in collaboration with code officials and city and county staff across the country, with an overarching goal to insure that all rooftop solar systems are installed to the utmost public health and safety standards.

But don’t stop there.  Look around for real examples of comprehensive permitting reform (many are highlighted in the Sharing Success report). It’s been playing out in a number of different forums across the country to meet different needs. For example, to address land-use issues related to solar permitting, the California County Planning Directors Association (CCPDA) approved a Solar Permit Streamlining GuideModel Ordinance and related resources to improve the efficiency and consistency of solar permitting across the state.  In a similar vein, in my home state of North Carolina, a wide range of stakeholders are currently undertaking a collaborative process to develop a template solar ordinance for local jurisdictions.

To address electrical and building issues, the East Bay Green Corridor Initiative in California, recently rolled out a series of residential solar permitting initiatives for its nine cities.  Likewise, California’s Contra Costa County and seven cities therein also recently collaborated to simplified solar permitting, through a SunShot Initiative project.

3) Turn to neighboring jurisdictions –What are they doing?
We know there are different permitting needs that arise from varying weather and geographical differences around the country. Who understands these issues better than you and your neighbors in the region? If you are facing a particularly challenging issue, most likely another jurisdiction has encountered that same challenge.  Reach out to your neighbors to find out how have they confronted these local permitting challenges.  Despite variations in local conditions, it is easiest to start from a tried-and-true common place, then tailor to meet your local needs.  It also helps everyone if the rules are more consistent across the market where installers work.  See Step #2 above.

4) Take action – Start the conversation.
Finally, armed with the knowledge from the above steps, it is easier than you may think to start the reform process.  Synthesize your findings and define the challenge going forward. Start a dialogue with staff in your jurisdiction to identify available resources and interested collaborators. If necessary, find an appropriate city or county board that may be willing to officially explore the issue.  Solar remains a hot issue—you will be amazed at how much interest you can generate by just starting the conversation.

We cannot overstate your individual role in improving local air quality and economic development through solar permitting reform, not to mention reducing the local resources needed to process applications. Because permitting happens at the local level, there is no overarching policy action that can magically streamline solar permitting across the board.  Rather, widespread, collective action by committed individuals is the most effective option if we want to encourage solar development in our communities across the country.


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