The shift to online solar permitting started before the pandemic, but lockdown and distance orders added urgency to the movement. Contractors had been asking for relief from the extensive paper forms and long waits in the permitting office, and NREL delivered. The lab launched the online permitting solution SolarAPP+ nationwide in July 2020, and since the Biden Administration took office, the Dept. of Energy has put its full weight behind it.
This past fall, Sec. Jennifer Granholm wrote an open letter asking all U.S. mayors to adopt SolarAPP+ to speed the solar permitting process and help reach the administration’s robust climate goals, which include reaching 40% solar energy in the nation’s mix by 2035.
“Until now, obtaining permits to install solar can take days, weeks or even months in some parts of the country, and can be a complex and costly process,” Sec. Granholm wrote. “At a time when we are using technology to create life-saving vaccines, connect with colleagues and family virtually and explore outer space, it seems implausible we are still shuffling paper to process applications for solar permits.”
She set a goal last year to get 125 communities to sign up to learn more about SolarAPP+ by September 30.
Since its launch in July, the SolarAPP+ tool has processed over 2,700 residential solar permits across 12 jurisdictions and saved customers an estimated 12 business days from the time of project submission to the jurisdiction’s final inspection, according to NREL. Nine communities are piloting the SolarAPP+ permitting for energy storage systems with over 200 permits processed so far.
NREL and Accela released a study on two major localities that have found success in SolarAPP+. Pima County and Tucson, Arizona, reportedly saved more than 1,000 hours of permit processing time and sped up the install process for contractors and customers.
“The City of Tucson and Pima County take climate change seriously and believe that all communities must play a part in creating a better, healthier planet for future Arizonians,” said Carla Blackwell, Pima County’s director of development services, in the report. “SolarAPP+ represents a clear next step for communities like mine to make the immediate, affordable and necessary changes within our pre-existing systems to fight climate change.”
A study by NREL researchers in the Energy Policy journal found instant online solar permits are associated with shorter sign-submit and submit-approve durations, and found no evidence of adverse downstream impacts from these advancements.
SolarAPP+ is free for AHJs, but contractors pay a standard price per application to maintain the system and fund continuous updates, in addition to the fees charged by AHJs.
The SolarAPP+ platform also plans to publish data on permitting practices nationwide to help streamline the costs from city to city. Jurisdictions may be reassessing fees since it’s clear SolarAPP+ decreases the time and effort it takes to process permits.
In May 2021, NREL announced a memorandum of understanding with UL to further develop and commercialize SolarAPP+ to reach its goal of using the software to cover 90% of all residential solar + storage permits by 2030.
“Their credibility with installers, customers and local governments will help us build a scalable product, while instilling local government confidence in the automated code compliance checks at the heart of the application,” said Jeffrey Cook, NREL’s lead developer of SolarAPP+, in a press release.
Although some AHJs can be slow to adopt new technology, SolarAPP+’s government backing could help bring permitting reform to even the smallest cities.