Fix Solar Permitting to Fight Climate Change

by | November 17, 2014

By Maury Blackman

Every time you turn on your TV or read the news, there seems to be another story about the devastating effects of climate change.

Last year was California’s driest year on record and 2014 hasn’t looked any better. A new report predicts that in the next 15 years extreme flooding could shut down city streets and destroy waterfront properties from Miami Beach to Washington, D.C. to San Diego. In Florida, rising sea levels put over two million people, one million homes and nearly two million acres of land at risk, while encroaching shorelines threaten $3.5 trillion of assets in Miami alone. San Francisco planners are grappling with repairing and possibly raising its aging seawall, and its Port Commission officials are estimating that $5 billion will need to be spent in the next 20 years.
 
These dire threats to our way of life may seem too large for any person, city, state or country to even comprehend, let alone to mitigate. But there is something local and state governments can do now.
 
Streamline and modernize our residential solar permitting processes.

A Broken System Full of Impediments, Obstacles and Inefficiencies

One of the best ways to combat climate change is transitioning from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources. But government inefficiency and bureaucracy throughout the United States is slowing its expansion and in turn our fight against climate change. The permitting and code inspection process for installing residential solar panels is too often a nightmare for consumers and installation companies alike.
 
Solar installers waste valuable time and resources standing in line for hours at City Hall, completing and filing mountains of permitting paperwork. Very often multiple forms are required from a variety of municipal departments. Each inefficiency ups the price for residential solar panels. It’s estimated that this inefficiency can cost U.S. consumers up to an additional $2,500 on a 5-kilowatt rooftop solar system.
 
The permitting and code inspection process is an important and necessary function of our local governments. These regulations and processes serve to keep us safe in our homes — in this case, so that we don’t burn our homes down with improperly installed solar panels. But, it’s unfortunate when inefficient processes and the lack of use of available technology adds needless delay and cost.
 
It should come as no surprise that Germany has figured out how to make solar permitting both easier and more cost-effective. Germany only requires a single online registration form to install residential solar panels. With just one form, submitted one time and online, Germans can have a solar panel system installed on their roofs in less than a week!
 
Unfortunately, the experience in many cities and towns in the United States is just a little different.
 
While visiting a local solar company in Torrance, California last year, a State Assemblyman was told, “It often takes 65 days to install solar panels on a person’s home, of which 64 of those days are spent wading through the local bureaucracy to get the necessary permits and approvals.”
 
This story is not unique to Torrance.

Small Changes Making A Big Impact

Climate change is such a big issue that at times it seems nearly impossible to solve. But simplifying our bureaucratic process for solar permitting is something that local, regional and state governments can start doing today.
 
Some already are.
 
California Governor Jerry Brown recently signed the Solar Permitting Efficiency Act into law. The bill aims to streamline the solar permitting process throughout the state. This could save solar customers $1,000 or more on their installation costs. The bill’s author is Torrance Assemblyman Al Muratsuchi, who had been told about the average 64 days that solar companies spend dealing with the current permitting system.
 
This new law is merely step one for California. Local jurisdictions responsible for the day-to-day permitting and inspections will have to insure that they have modern practices and technology that can deliver on the goals of the legislation. Great examples of this already exist. San Diego County recently streamlined their processes utilizing modern permitting and inspection technology to dramatically improve efficiency.
 
Other states are working on their own reforms. Vermont created the nation’s first solar registration program in 2011, which established a simple and consistent permitting process that allows approval in just ten days. More recently, the Maryland Energy Administration indicated that they are considering a statewide solar permit streamlining project.

Now is the Time for Action

Permitting reform is not a cure-all. Cutting those 64 days of waiting will not solve the climate crisis alone. But it is a start. Considering the effects on our environment, not to mention the multi-billion dollar infrastructure projects looming over the horizon to combat rising sea levels, our local governments need to do everything they can to alleviate the consequences.
 
Bringing our solar permitting system into the 21st century is an easy solution to implement.
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