Solar Builder

SEP-OCT 2018

Solar Builder focuses on the installation/construction of solar PV systems. We cover the latest PV technology (modules, mounting, inverters, storage, BOS) and equip installers/contractors with tips and tools to make informed purchasing decisions.

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26 S E P T E M B E R / O C TO B E R 2 0 1 8 "There are direct costs that are easi- er to quantify, like a building permit application fee, but there are opportu- nity costs associated with regulatory delays that are more diff icult to quan- tify in terms of installed cost, as mea- sured by dollars per watt," says Kristen Ardani, a solar program lead and ana- lyst at NREL. "For example, NREL's cost benchmark for residential PII of 0.10 per watt mainly captures direct costs, including an assumed $400 per- mit fee and six hours of back off ice labor for building permit and intercon- nection application preparation and submission. It does not include the costs associated with any regulatory delay or need to submit revised appli- cations." She reiterates that NREL's PV system cost benchmark represents the national average for a typical PV system and does not necessarily ref lect the cost of PV installations in jurisdictions with bur- densome permitting requirements. Ardani did note more onerous jurisdic- tions could easily quadruple the assump- tions of the PII benchmark. "For every day a system is delayed, that's one less day the system is produc- ing revenue and other benefits," she says. "Also, think of it in terms of time, delays and the cost impact of those delays." While less common for the residential market segment, there's also the cost associated with projects that are stalled to a point in which they are no longer economically viable, which means more indirect costs absorbed in overhead and operating margins. You won't necessarily find these measured in dollars per watt. "It can be difficult to quantify the whole suite of soft costs that are perhaps better measured in terms of time and lost opportunity," Ardani says. "While we have looked more closely at the time required for the utility interconnection process, in terms of business days, NREL has not directly quantified how PV growth is impacted by the lack of standardization in building permitting and inspection processes across more than 18,000 AHJs." Beyond benchmarks Instead of a big invisible hand push- ing the market forward, many munici- palities around the country are being kept under the invisible thumb of bureaucracy. The last real study of how many jurisdictions are avoided by solar installers because of onerous permitting processes was a poll done by Clean Power Finance in 2015. At that time, the 273 residential installers (which accounted for 90 percent of the market) showed more than a third of U.S. solar installers say permitting requirements limited growth. We looked for an update to that Clean Power Finance study and came up empty, but the anecdotal experience of solar installers is still full of head scratchers and headaches. The cities of Portland, Ore., and New York City will elicit audible groans from the solar com- munity, and we've heard of many solar contractors avoiding (or charging a pre- mium) to install in seemingly solar- friendly places like Palo Alto, Berkeley and LADWP jurisdictions in California. As a national solar and ener- gy storage design and engineering com- pany based in California, SepiSolar sees and hears it all, much of which boils down to overly burdensome back and forths with AHJs. "As a general rule, Southern California is the hardest region to pull solar permits," says SepiSolar CEO Joshua Weiner. "Lots of struc- tural Professional Engineer [PE] work is required, even on residential projects. The Southern California area has many permitting authorities with their own, little, ad-hoc and idiosyncratic rules." Example: Some towns have concerns about landscaping and rooftop aesthet- ics. Rejecting a solar permit based on aesthetics is especially egregious in California because it is actually illegal according to California's Solar Rights Act. But, that doesn't stop it from hap- pening and causing a chilling effect in certain pockets of an otherwise solar- friendly state. "Fairfield, Calif., wouldn't let us sub- mit plans for a Mercedes-Benz dealer- ship because the solar panels would be visible from the street," Tiffany Hanson, project manager at SepiSolar says. "We had to throw the Solar Rights Acts at them, and they finally changed their zoning ordinances, but it delayed the project by two months." Respondents to the Clean Power Finance survey cited individual projects being subject to the permitting require- ments of multiple AHJs. An average installation requires the involvement of two AHJs (including a utility), with some installers reporting up to five AHJs for a single project. This may include a utility, city and/or county planning offices, city and/or county fire departments, a state permitting agency and other AHJs as well. "It can be difficult for installers to determine which AHJs must be consult- ed," says Chelsea Barnes, director of policy services at EQ Research, a pro- vider of policy research, analysis and data services to businesses active in renewable energy. "We often work with installers who need assistance in figur- ing out the various permitting require- ments in a new area where they are seeking to do business. I can tell you from personal experience that you some- times feel like you are going in circles, being passed from one agency to the next, trying to navigate what the requirements might be for a particular project." Delays can arise from inefficient pro- cesses and lack of clear communication between installers and AHJs, but often delays can happen due to lack of famil- iarity with PV technology. The EQ Research team conducted research on solar permitting practices of cities and towns in New York and Massachusetts in 2015. In both states, they report encountering situations where local per- mitting staff was unfamiliar with solar PV technology and could not provide clear permitting requirements for solar projects to be constructed in their juris- dictions.

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