In an industry always looking for the cheapest install price, solar has a long way to go to bring down soft costs. Local governments control some key variables that can ratchet up those costs, including high solar permitting fees and long turnaround times, unfriendly zoning ordinances and more.
Cities without streamlined solar processes can lose out on solar development because installers avoid the area or residents don’t bother investing in rooftop solar, knowing the process is costly and tedious. A federally funded program called SolSmart aims to fix that.
“SolSmart is mainly a solar soft cost reduction program, and it’s important, because about 64% of all solar costs come from soft costs. And these are costs associated with all the non-hardware parts of going solar. So, permitting fees, labor, zoning issues, things like that,” said Zach Greene, program director and SolSmart leader at The Solar Foundation. “By working with these local governments, by educating them, by providing them with consulting-type resources, we’re really able to help them reduce those costs at the local level and to really try to expand a local solar market.”
SolSmart is funded by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Solar Energy Technologies Office and led by The Solar Foundation and the International City/County Management Association, along with a network of other partners. It’s a designation system with three levels — Bronze, Silver and Gold — that indicate how solar-friendly a city, county or small town is. Communities can obtain SolSmart designations by submitting an intake form and providing documentation that they’ve completed different requirements to make solar power more attainable for communities — including simplifying permitting; planning, zoning and development regulations; establishing solar rights ordinances or easements and five other criteria. Over 200 communities across the country have received SolSmart designations since the program’s inception in 2016, so the program is on track to reach its 300-community goal by the time the initial grant funding ends in October 2020.
Cities have solar barriers for many different reasons, but a major roadblock is limited resources. Local governments have to prioritize important daily duties like trash removal, street maintenance or snow plowing, and solar isn’t seen as a priority.
“A lot of times, they just don’t have the capacity to take on efforts to really overhaul how they permit solar energy. They don’t have the staff capacity for our Gold prerequisite — you have to have a three-day turnaround time for small-scale solar permits,” Greene said. “Although solar is important to a lot of communities, it’s not necessarily their first priority.”
Gold status may never be attainable for smaller cities with limited resources, but Bronze or Silver levels are possible. Though the SolSmart program requires staff time to work with technical advisors to streamline processes, it doesn’t cost any money. And that time spent with an advisor can help municipalities in more ways than just cleaning up permitting or zoning.
“The goal is really to reduce the turnaround time that it takes to get a permit and an inspection done for solar energy, but in addition to helping the homeowner, the other part of SolSmart is really helping local government staff better understand solar energy,” Greene said. “One of the barriers that we see to advancing soft cost reduction measures is that local governments don’t always understand solar or solar-compatible technologies.”
SolSmart communities can gain access to technical advisors in two ways: First, where a SolSmart advisor is embedded within the community for a designated amount of time. Second, where communities receive web-based technical assistance from one of the partner organizations involved in SolSmart, including NREL, Cadmus, the National League of Cities and others. These advisors can help communities get their first SolSmart designations or move from a lower designation to higher, like Bronze to Gold.
Jennifer Barenholtz is an embedded SolSmart advisor for the South Florida Regional Planning Council. She said many cities are moving toward online and expedited permitting for services like changing out water heaters or windows — and she tries to bring solar into the conversation too.
“My goal is to kind of jump on that and say, ‘Oh, if you have an expedited permit process already in place, can we just add solar to that expedited process?'” Barenholtz said.
She said many cities don’t realize how cumbersome their solar processes are until they take a closer look.
“A lot of cities think that they’re doing things very efficiently and then when I come in and I meet with the building officials, they’re like, ‘Oh actually we didn’t realize that this permit came in and then it took like a whole month [to process],'” Barenholtz said.
She said some cities were sending workers to inspect the same home for solar up to eight times. After talking to Barenholtz, they realized they only needed to visit a home two times.
Another important piece of Barenholtz’s work in a community is making it easier for cities to educate residents about going solar in their jurisdiction. She supplies the city with a template for an online solar landing page where residents can find everything they need to know about going solar in that town, including financing options and lists of solar installers in the area.
Barenholtz said the solar installers she’s spoken to have been thrilled with the results from South Florida’s SolSmart efforts.
Justin Hoysradt, CEO and president of West Palm Beach-based residential installer Vinyasun, said SolSmart helped the company expand its business and provide affordable rates to customers.
“Prior to SolSmart, there were extremely long wait times for permits — anywhere from 60 days on up to 90 days in some municipalities that we’ve worked,” Hoysradt said.
Before SolSmart came to West Palm Beach, he said it was hard to pull permits in that city. But the mayor was so committed to opening up the solar market that the city worked with its advisor (who happened to be Barenholtz — she was stationed there before becoming South Florida’s advisor) to obtain a SolSmart Gold designation. It was able to cut down the permit turnaround time for a Tier 1 (10-kW or less residential solar installation) solar project to just one day.
“We’re consistently trying to get more business in the city of West Palm Beach because we know that we can not only provide a much higher quality of service to that customer, they’re also going to receive that quality of service quicker, faster and at an affordable rate without having to wait long for bureaucratic processes,” Hoysradt said.
Hoysradt thinks the program has created healthy competition between cities to become more solar-friendly. When cities broadcast their SolSmart achievements online and in municipal newsletters, more residents see that solar power is an attainable energy option in their community.
“That’s definitely something that we have seen as a positive and we’ve met with people who have said, ‘Oh, we know that our city is doing things to make solar more affordable,'” Hoysradt said.
He said Vinyasun is planning to expand operations into the Orlando area because the city and surrounding counties are supportive of solar and sustainability. The company is also exploring operations in Broward County for the same reason.
“All of those areas have participated in SolSmart or other programs to reduce costs and increase access to solar,” Hoysradt said.
Even if state-level solar policy is less than stellar, streamlining city solar processes can help increase solar penetration in a community and decrease soft costs for installers.
“Regardless of what the state policy is, it’s really crucial that a local government take action on its own. Policies change, prices change and prices have come down to such a point where solar is really becoming more affordable everywhere,” Greene said.
The Solar Foundation is currently working on a plan to keep the program running after DOE grant funding ends in 2020.
“The Department of Energy has for many years funded similar soft-cost reduction programs, and so this is obviously a priority, not just for the Department of Energy and The Solar Foundation, but just broadly for the industry and for communities,” Greene said.