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Published on February 5th, 2013 | by Ronald Brakels

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America! Cast Off The Shackles Of Mandatory Permitting For Rooftop Solar!



When I was young, I learned about America from watching TV, and as a result, I assumed that the United States didn’t have much in the way of rules or regulations. After all, most justice appeared to be dispensed by Batman, and villains seemed to be released from jail just about every week. As a result of this education, I thought that Americans weren’t too concerned about enforcing laws and loved freedom too much to keep anyone locked up for long. But eventually I grew too old to believe in Batman (sometime in the middle of last year) and was surprised to learn that the US has just as many laws and regulations as any other developed country.

In fact, there’s one area where the US has a lot more regulation than countries like Australia and Germany, and that’s when it comes to installing rooftop solar. Permits appear to be required for almost every solar installation in America, while Down Under we hardly ever need one. To me, it just seems odd that people are required to ask for permission to have professionally installed solar put on their own roof. After all, it’s a PV system, not a pet lion. It’s not likely to leap off the roof and eat someone.

Now, personally, I would have thought that Australia would be the place to require permits rather than the US. After all, we’ve gone in for some strange laws and regulations in the past. I’m originally from Queensland, which is a state where it used to be illegal for a man to dress as a woman. We also used to send inspectors around to poultry farms, chicken police basically, to make sure that farmers didn’t have more chickens than they were legally entitled to. Police used to attend comedy shows to arrest comedians for swearing. And if you don’t understand how weird that is, then you’ve obviously never been to @!$#*&% Australia.

Permitting costs are a serious problem in the US. According to one study, they increase the cost of rooftop solar by 20 cents a watt. That’s $600 for a three-kilowatt system, the most common size for new solar in Australia. Permitting also causes huge delays. It can take months for Americans to get rooftop solar installed, while in Australia, installation often takes less than a week. Permitting requirements are so bad in some parts of the United States that solar installers simply don’t go there.

So I suggest that America do what Australia and Germany have done — make permits unnecessary for most installations. Now, America is a big place, and there may be areas where they are already doing this. If so, do it more.

This is not to suggest that here in Australia we’re all living in some sort of red-tape-free, bureaucratic-interferenceless wonderland. Well, yes, it is a wonderland, but it’s no bed of rose -petal-fattened possums. We have our own problems here. For example, I recently investigated Adelaide City Council’s requirements for installing rooftop solar, and let me tell you, getting through them was a tough job. First, I had to wait a fraction of a second for them to download. And then, once they were finally downloaded, I saw that the guide was a whole page long and there were over 300 words for me to slog through. But I persevered.

Under the heading “Will you need approval?” it sets out the conditions that must be met for permitless home solar installation. They are, and I quote:

Development approval will be required if the total weight of the solar panels exceeds 100 kg unless:

* the weight of the panels is distributed so that it does not exceed 100 kg at any one point of attachment to the roof

AND

* the panels, and any part of its associated components, do not overhang any part of the roof

AND

* the panels are fitted parallel to the roof with their underside surface located no more than 100 mm above the surface of the roof.

The solar system must also be installed by an installer accredited by the State Government.

And that’s it. As long as those requirements are met, you can call up an installer and get rooftop solar without any need for a permit. If the installer isn’t busy, they could even do it the next day.

If Australia and Germany can have permit-less installations for most rooftop solar, then so can the United States. America, I call upon you to rise up and cast off the shackles of mandatory permitting for professionally installed rooftop solar, and stride into the new dawn of low-cost distributed solar power. For it is a rising sun that I see, not a setting one.

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About the Author

is dying here! Today, which is the 14th of January, it was 45 degrees Celsius (113 degrees Fahrenheit) here in Adelaide and tomorrow it's predicted to be 46 degrees Celsius (115 Fahrenheit). I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, lay off the greenhouse gases!



  • Craig Allen

    Well Adelaide might be a solar installation paradise but my local council area (Darebin) in Melbourne sucks. The council has a web page extolling the virtues of solar. But because my suburb is covered by a heritage overlay, and my corrugated iron roof is part of the character of the street, I needed to submit a planning application, with full architectural quality drawings. They rejected my application, suggesting that I instead put the panels on the south side of the roof facing toward the back of the house (and facing away from the sun here in the Southern Hemisphere). I argued my case with them, and they eventually relented on condition that the panels not be closer than 150mm to the roof caps or gutter. That all took a couple of months. After the installation there was also a wait of a month before the installation inspector came to sign off on the connection to the grid.

    I know that various councillors are agitating for improvement and I’m hopeful that it will be improved this year. I guess that things have changed so fast that authorities have been taken by surprise and have not yet caught up.

    The other real pain is dealing with the electricity companies. They just can’t get their act together with the billing. My bill is such a mess that I have real trouble deciphering it. It’s like trying to decipher a cryptic crossword.

    And don’t get me started on the stupid smart meter that actually gives me less information than the old one.

    Unfortunately a lot of people would be put off getting solar by the painful experiences of their friends and neighbours.

    On the plus side, there are big opportunities for improvements and therefore for drops in cost and effort.

    • Ronald Brakels

      While most people can install solar without a hitch, I’ve read about people around here who’ve had local Councils make their life difficult, either because because of heritage requirements or simply because they happened to have a flat roof and so logically wanted to install angled solar panels. For the most part there is no need for Councils to be such a pain. If a local council feels the need to keep an area or individual houses solar free for some reason, well there are plenty of other buildings around that could use solar. Councils should offer the option of installing a similar amount of solar capacity on another building, perhaps a school or council building, and give people a return similar to what they would have received if it had been installed on their own roof. In fact, maybe Councils should be required to give this option if they block an installaton. In fact, if they were smart they might build the solar capacity in remote parts of grid connected Australia where where providing a kilowatt-hour of grid power can apparently cost over 50 cents due to high transmission costs.

  • Bob_Wallace

    Good. No, great!

    Now, how do we distribute this to all the city and county boards of supervisors around the US?

    License installers. Require them to be insured and post a performance bond. Put the responsibility for a correctly installed system on the installer’s license and financials.

    If we want to be all “belt and suspenders”, then send a building inspector around to check before the “on” switch can be thrown.

    • Otis11

      Why the crap has this not come up before???

      I’m just baffled. Drop the soft cost – drop the required permitting! We’ll have solar grid parity tomorrow!

      • http://zacharyshahan.com/ Zachary Shahan

        It has, but it’s a beast & a half to battle. But we really need to put the pressure on here — this is a larger & larger % of solar costs in the US.

        • Otis11

          I understand it’s a battle – but if it just got media attention I can’t imagine anyone opposing it unless they are either heavily invested in the FF industry or they work for/are sponsored by a FF company…

          • http://zacharyshahan.com/ Zachary Shahan

            I meant that it’s a big challenge because these regulations are not set nationally but on local and state levels. Have to get them changed all over the place, and of course have to battle bureaucratic inertia to get that done.

          • Bob_Wallace

            Right, but I think it will happen.

            Solar installing is becoming a larger and larger industry. We recently heard about a very large roofing company getting into the solar business.

            Large companies are able to get the attention of the local people who write regulations. As political clout increases noise will be made at the federal and state level and “sample regulations” will be sent down to local governments. I’m of the impression that these suggestions are generally adopted.

            I would imagine that the solar industry agency (agencies) are working on this. Something you might check through your resources, Zach?

            And you might want to check to see if they have contacted environmental groups to get their assistance in pressuring the system.

            This would seem to be a rather basic lobbying issue. Getting paperwork/permit costs down could make a tremendous difference in getting panels hooked to the Sun.

          • http://zacharyshahan.com/ Zachary Shahan

            That seems to be Rhone Resch’s #1 agenda item according to his statements during the BNEF press conference last week. No surprise. Hope they can make quick progress.

    • http://www.facebook.com/stan.stein.31 Stan Stein

      They do…..no utility company will allow net metering unless a certified company installed the system. They require all the contractor credibility paperwork before issueing tax credits too…I’m think there are some who slip through the cracks though, just like everything else.
      I have been in this business for 2 years lately, and 5 yrs in the late 70s with solar hot water concentrators (parabolic trough systems)….there is much more regulation now than in the past.
      And yes, inspectors have to sign off too….just like any other home improvement operation.

    • http://www.facebook.com/Janine.Westlund Janine Westlund

      Licensed installers was my thought exactly. There’s no reason to involve an architect or engineer for small, specialized projects when licensed installers can do it for a portion of the price. I also agree about having a building inspector take a look before flipping the switch. Installers should be required to keep their calcs on file for at least 5 years. All new homes should be built “solar-ready” to eliminate expensive retroactive structural work down the road.

  • Sacha B. Nice

    Good humor, good point.

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