Government makes an app to cut down government’s role in solar permitting

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Written By Sedoso Feb

Enlarge / NREL has taken some of the hassle out of getting permits for projects like these.
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Can government agencies develop software to help cut bureaucratic red tape through automation? The answer is “yes,” according to the promising results achieved by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), which has saved thousands of hours of labor for local governments by creating a tool called SolarAPP+ (Solar Automated Permit Processing Plus) for residential solar permits.

“We estimate that automatic SolarAPP+ permitting saved around 9,900 hours of… staff time in 2022,” NREL staff wrote in the report, “SolarAPP+ Performance Review (2022 Data). “Based on median timelines, a typical SolarAPP+ project is permitted and inspected 13 business days sooner than traditional projects… SolarAPP+ has eliminated over 134,000 days in permitting-related delays.”

SolarAPP+ automates over 100 compliance checks in the permitting process that are usually the responsibility of city, county, or town employees, according to Jeff Cook, SolarAPP+ program lead at NREL and first author of the report. It can be more accurate, thorough, and efficient than a time-pressured local government employee would be.

Saving time and money

Sometimes, the cost of permitting can be higher than the cost of solar hardware, Cook said. It depends on the specifics of the project.

“We knew that residential rooftop solar volume was increasing across the country,” Cook said. “It took us… 20 years to get to a million PV installations. And I think we got to 2 million PV installations just a few years later. And so there’s a lot of solar volume out there. And the problem is that each one of those systems needs to be reviewed for code compliance. And so if you need a human to review that, you’ve got a million applications.”

“When regulations make it unnecessarily difficult for people to quickly install solar and storage systems, it hurts everyone,” said Senator Scott Wiener (D-Calif.) in a press statement. “It hurts those who want to install solar. And it hurts communities across California, which are being negatively impacted by climate change. We need to make it easier for people to use renewable energy—that’s just a no-brainer. Expediting solar permitting is something we can do to make this a reality.”

A coalition of stakeholders from the solar industry, the US Department of Energy, and the building code-development community requested that NREL develop the software, Cook said. The organizations represented included UL Solutions and the Interstate Renewable Energy Council. (UL Solutions is a company that addresses a broad range of safety issues; initially, it focused on fire and electrical safety.)

“What we identified is the community need for the software and we identified that there was a gap in the private sector,” Cook said. “There was no incentive to do it from any active members of the private sector, but a real potential opportunity or value to the public good if such a software existed and was publicly available and free for a local government to adopt.”

Cook estimates that hundreds of thousands of hours in plan review time would have been required to manually approve all of the residential solar permits in the United States in recent years. Approving a permit for a residential solar project can take local government staff 15 minutes to an hour, and around 30 percent of the applications are later revised.

A flood of applications

“It just inundates the staff with work that they have to do,” Cook said.

“We are seeing about 750 residential requests over the past 12 months, which is about double the number of applications we saw two years ago,” said Kate Gallego, mayor of Phoenix, at the SolarAPP+ Industry Roundtable. “When I ask people in industry what we can do to speed up deployment of solar, they ask, ‘Can you do permitting faster?’ We’re at about 30 days now. We want to get that permitted as fast as possible, but we don’t want to sacrifice safety, and we want to make sure we’re not just doing it quickly, but well. That’s why this partnership was very attractive to me.”

Up to five separate departments may review the permits—the ones that oversee structural, electrical, fire, planning, and zoning decisions, Cook said.

“There’s usually a queue,” Cook said. “Just because it takes the jurisdiction only 15 minutes to review doesn’t mean that you send it to them today—they review it an hour later and get back to you. The average is, across the country, a seven-day turnaround, but it can be 30 days plus. It really varies across the country depending on how much volume of solar is in that space.”

Compatibility and code checks

Cook described how the software operates. When the software performs a code-compliance check, it looks at an aspect of the solar installation plan and verifies that it meets local codes.

“To give you some examples, the code requires that the module and racking equipment are tested to UL 2703, which means that they were tested as a system for grounding and bonding,” Cook said. “If the modules on the rack were not tested as a system for grounding and bonding, that means they’re not code-compliant and can’t be installed together. And the tool automatically checks both of those things and approves it. It also checks the fire side of the equation.”

The app can figure out which local rules apply once it's told where the project is happening.
Enlarge / The app can figure out which local rules apply once it’s told where the project is happening.
NREL

Cook said SolarAPP+ asks a “host of questions” about the electrical system. It asks what modules, inverters, and racking are being used, what wires are being run, and whether subpanels are being added or whether the house’s main panels are being upgraded.

“If your system is code-compliant, then they get… an approval document from us,” Cook said. “That approval document is then used by an inspector out in the field to verify whatever it is the contractor said they were doing actually happened. The code enforcement still has to happen at the time of inspection, like it does today, because you can have a perfect plan submitted in the traditional process or in SolarAPP+ and that can be not what’s installed out in the field. That inspector needs to be that last set of eyes.”

But the app helps here as well. SolarAPP+ projects fail inspections around 29 percent less often than traditional projects do, the report says.

Controlling the quality of software like this is crucial. NREL also limits who can use it. “A software like this isn’t good if it’s right 80 percent or 90 percent of the time. It has to be right 100 percent of the time,” Cook said. “We only allow licensed contractors to use the system. You need to understand the code front to back to be able to use SolarAPP+.”

Local governments usually adopt versions of model codes from code-development organizations. These model codes evolve along with technologies, and communities introduce amendments for them, Cook said. NREL adds local amendments to the codes into SolarAPP+ as needed after reviewing them line by line.

Getting buy in

The outreach process to promote SolarAPP+ has been very extensive, but the results are only just beginning to yield their potential. As of the end of December 2022, NREL had gotten in touch with over 1,500 local governments, the report says—549 of these expressed interest in that timeframe. Of these, only 16 were starting to pilot the platform and only 15 had publicly launched it. During 2022, 11,092 permits were submitted through the platform.

When local governments are onboarded to use the software, they input their local air temperatures, wind speeds, and seismic categories, Cook said. This information helps determine the code-compliance of the solar designs.

Some other software packages exist to issue permits online. Plans approved in SolarAPP+ can be used as inputs to those systems. NREL is looking into developing an API to eliminate that step, Cook said.

In the first quarter of 2024, NREL tentatively plans to transition SolarAPP+ to a third-party long-term host, the SolarAPP+ Foundation, which will operate the license and collaborate with UL Solutions, Cook said. The foundation has a board composed of code-development and code-enforcement organizations, local governments, and code officials. The board also includes subject-matter experts who are knowledgeable about fire, electrical, and building codes, as well as solar power. The board will verify all the new code developed for the tool.

Technology professionals may be interested in the fact that NREL is seeking to form other similar partnerships for cleantech software development, Cook said.

Kat Friedrich is a former mechanical engineer who started out as an applied mathematics, engineering, and physics major at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She has completed a graduate degree focusing on science and environmental journalism and has edited seven news publications, two of which she co-founded. She is the editor in chief of the energy magazine Solar Today. 

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