More & Faster Solar Panel Installations In The USA: There’s An App For That

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President Joe Biden has penned an ambitious plan for climate action, but the devil is in the details. One of those details is the sea of red tape that lies between a rooftop and a set of spanking new solar panels, in the form of local zoning and permitting regulations. The wheels of bureaucracy can slow things down to a crawl, and that costs money and jobs. It also wastes precious time when deadly climate impacts are already in force, with Texas being the latest example. Now the US Department of Energy is here with something called the new SolarAPP, aimed at revving the solar permitting process up to warp speed.

rooftop solar panels
The National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s new SolarAPP automated system aims to make installing solar panels as easy as pie (photo by Dennis Schroeder, NREL).

How To Install More Rooftop Solar Panels, More Quickly

The Energy Department has been hammering away at the issue of “soft costs” that bump up the price of rooftop solar panels, beyond the price of the hardware itself. As the cost of solar hardware — including the racks and other equipment in addition to solar panels — ratchets down, soft costs can remain stubbornly high.

In 2013, for example, soft costs including labor, marketing, and permitting accounted for more than 60% of the final cost of a typical rooftop solar installation, a figure that still holds today.

Part of the Energy Department’s approach involves incentivizing local communities to establish best practices to share for speeding up solar permitting, two examples being the “Solar in your Community” challenge and the SolSmart solar recognition and mentoring program.

The other part involves developing tools and technology that local communities can deploy to step things up. The introduction of time-saving online and remote technology has been helpful, and SolarAPP takes it to the next level.

What Is This SolarAPP Of Which You Speak?

SolarAPP was developed by the Energy Department’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory. It launched last year to little fanfare, but you’re probably going to hear lots more about it in the future.

The basic idea is to add full automation to the mix. The APP in SolarAPP stands for Solar Automated Permit Processing, and they are not kidding around.

“Faster permit processing from SolarAPP produces several benefits for local governments and their communities,” explains NREL. “Besides gaining efficiency, local governments can count on SolarAPP to increase permitting fee revenue, enhance local resilience, establish safe solar-grid connections, and accelerate job growth in solar energy.”

Apparently NREL has been waiting to see how the SolarAPP early adopters fare before tooting its own horn, and there is plenty to toot about.

Yesterday the lab reported testimonials from several jurisdictions that have been piloting SolarAPP, and the reviews are glowing. Of particular interest is the city of Pleasant Hill, California, where streamlining the permit process for simple rooftop solar panels has made room on the schedule for work that is not so easily automated.

“We’re now able to move qualifying solar permits directly to field inspections, which is giving our staff much needed time to work on other, more complex projects,” said the city’s chief building official Geoff Simmons.

The sheer volume of activity around rooftop solar panels is also of interest, considering that we’re in the middle of a pandemic. According to NREL, requests for solar permits top 100 per week in many jurisdictions. Without adequate staffing, that can gum things up for everyone. It is especially onerous when an application is rejected and needs to be corrected and resubmitted.

Streamlining the correction process is a benefit cited by a pair of SolarAPP early adopters in Arizona, Pima County and the city of Tucson. They see a flood of 3,600 permits yearly, and they have already noticed a benefit for rejected permit applications as well as ones that sail through the system.

With the automated system, rejected permit applicants instantly get a report explaining exactly what the problem is. It enables the contractor to correct the errors in real time, rather depending on overworked public staff to walk them through the quality assurance steps.

Rooftop Solar Panels Are Good, Solar-Plus-Storage Is Better

NREL worked closely with local partners and industry stakeholders to ensure that SolarAPP is already compatible with other government software already in use, such as Accela and OpenGov.

“These partnerships will combine each vendor’s platform for automating government workflows with the SolarAPP engine for screening permits, allowing seamless SolarAPP adoption for local governments that use these platforms,” enthuses NREL.

To make things even easier, communities can sign up for SolarAPP online. But of course.

NREL also suggests signing up for SolarAPP updates, which would be a good idea because they are already working on a model for solar-plus-storage.

NREL’s list of SolarAPP early adopters has already expanded to include other communities in Arizona and California. Activity is also brewing in Colorado, Maryland, and Massachusetts, so stay tuned for more on that.

More Rooftop Solar Panels For Texas

No story about renewable energy would be complete without mentioning Texas, where anyone who has suffered through a blackout in freezing cold weather can relate to the life-threatening misery cutting a huge swath across the state. The Red Cross is among those responding and you can help by sending money.

In the meantime, fossil energy stakeholders have been quick to point fingers at the state’s burgeoning renewable energy profile, but the experts agree — and the evidence shows — that the state’s entire power infrastructure crumbled under the weight of an unprecedented weather event and a decades-old regulatory structure that has islanded the Texas grid off from the kind of regional help that other parts of the nation enjoy (although they do have a relationship with Mexico, so go figure).

If you guessed we’re talking about ERCOT, run right out and buy yourself a cigar. The system was designed to favor local fossil stakeholders, and to this day Texas is both the largest energy-producing and energy-consuming state in the nation, according to our friends over at the US Energy Information Agency, which further notes that refineries and petrochemical plants account for half of the state’s energy consumption.

Interesting! Somewhat ironically, though, the ERCOT model allowed for Texas to become a clean tech leader, especially in the area of wind power. Texas is also setting itself up to break out of the pack in the green hydrogen field, and it is collaborating with NREL on a rather interesting electric vehicle venture.

The Lone Star State’s solar energy industry is also beginning to attract attention from top investors, and that’s where things get interesting.

So far much of the spotlight has been shining on utility-scale solar in Texas, but last year we caught wind of an interesting development involving household rooftop solar panels and the “solar prosumer” concept promoted by the US Energy Department.

That’s interesting from an energy storage perspective, considering that Texas is an early wind-plus-storage and solar-plus storage adopter, as well as smart grid technology.

Considering that solar panels do keep churning out clean kilowatts in cold weather — and that weather proofing wind turbines is a thing — we’re guessing that Texas will emerge from the calamity with a renewed commitment to forge onwards into a more reliable, resilient future. That means more wind turbines as well as more rooftop solar panels, energy storage, and clean tech.

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Photo: Rooftop solar panels by Dennis Schroeder, National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

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Tina Casey

Tina specializes in advanced energy technology, military sustainability, emerging materials, biofuels, ESG and related policy and political matters. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on LinkedIn, Threads, or Bluesky.

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