Saturday, January 30, 2016

Challenge Accepted: Reducing the Soft Costs of Going Solar

Every year, it becomes even more affordable to “go solar.” However, one thing remains consistent: the non-hardware, or “soft” costs related to permitting, installation, and maintenance account for more than half of the cost of an installed rooftop solar array. The SunShot Initiative’s Rooftop Solar Challenge funding program is successfully reducing these costs and providing a framework for others to do the same.

Building on the success of the first round, Rooftop Solar Challenge II brings together city, county and state officials, regulatory entities, private industry, universities, local utilities and other regional stakeholders to address differing and expensive processes required to install and finance residential and small business solar systems. With more than 18,000 local jurisdictions in the United States, each having their own photovoltaic (PV) permitting requirements, it can be complicated for consumers to navigate the solar landscape.

Teams across the country are working to simplify solar processes and reduce costs. They have successfully developed solutions in three major areas – standardizing permitting and interconnection processes, facilitating easy and cheap bulk purchasing, and supporting fast online applications.

The NYSolar Smart team partnered with state entities in New York that have influence over the installation process, such as local building departments. They developed a project-based change management platform that allowed each party to help determine the needed changes to streamline local permitting processes. By finding a common ground and creating implementation plans, the group helped New York surpass half a gigawatt of installed solar capacity, which is enough energy to power approximately 100,000 homes. The Solar Ready II team, which works with local organizations in 14 states and is managed by the Mid-America Regional Council, took a similar approach by helping local governments develop best management practices that are expected to result in more than 4 megawatts of new solar installations, saving more than $1,000 on each installed system. The Golden State Solar Impact team created the second edition of the California Solar Permitting Guidebook, which set the standard for the country’s first state-mandated expedited solar permitting requirement. The Pacific Northwest Solar Partnership team informed a building code amendment in Washington state that eliminated the need for an engineering stamp on permits for rooftop PV systems, saving customers up to $2,500 per job. These four teams made significant progress in simplifying permitting and interconnection, but they’re not the only ones.
Solar installers dressed up as superheroes to complete the installation on the KidsQuest Children’s Museum in Washington as part of the Solarize Bellevue campaign. Photo by Allison DeAngelis.
Wholesale warehouse clubs allow consumers to buy in bulk, and the Rooftop Solar Challenge teams are applying the same methodology to help consumers go solar. The NYSolar Smart team instituted group purchasing programs that have sprung up by the dozen. The Midwest Renewable Energy Association team helped 92 families put solar on their homes through innovative bulk purchasing programs, assisting home and business owners learn solar basics, find an installer, and choose a lender, which reduced soft costs and spurred the installation of more than 322 kilowatts of solar energy.

Going solar can involve a lot of paperwork, and teams are working to change that, too. The Go SOLAR–Florida team created a beta version of the online Solar Plans Generator, which provides a permit-ready package of drawings, calculations, and supporting documents that will have a consistent format for rapid processing. It is expected to cut permitting time and administrative costs statewide. The Pacific Northwest Solar Partnership team helped the Oregon Department of Energy implement an online application process for residential energy tax credits that saves installers an average of two hours of paperwork per installation, thereby cutting costs.

The Rooftop Solar Challenge II teams are continuing the funding program’s track record of dramatically reducing soft costs for American consumers. By examining these successes, jurisdictions across the country will be able to reproduce their results, making solar energy an option for thousands more people across the country.

U.S. Department of Energy 
Press Release dated January 7, 2016

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