Streamlining Solar Through Permitting

Wed, 2013-12-18 09:52

When it comes to the cost of solar, there has been a lot of attention given to the falling cost of PV solar systems, which is driven mostly by PV module prices. As the hardware costs come down, reduction in “soft,” non-hardware costs requires a more focused effort. Non-hardware business process (or “soft”) costs currently account for well over 50% of the installed price of residential PV systems in recent U.S. studies, including one from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) that specifically addressed city-level permitting, confirm that complicated permitting processes are contributing to higher cost and longer development timelines, as well as restraining competition among installers.

The Problem With Permitting

solar design and permittingPermitting – can’t live with it, can’t live without it. The typical PV permitting process in the U.S. may involve various government departmental reviews, including: building, electrical, plumbing, mechanical, fire, structural, zoning, and aesthetic reviews. In addition, local utilities must inspect for interconnection purposes. The challenge is to strike a balance so that the process adequately funds local government for the work involved, protects consumers, promotes public safety, and rewards diligent installers, without creating barriers that can diminish benefits and deter both installers and consumers.

Progess In Permitting

Local, regional, state, and national efforts are already underway in the United States to streamline and reduce the costs of local permitting. Ideas that have been put forth to benefit consumers, installers, and city government include:

  • Lower permit fees
  • Limit wait time for permit approval
  • Minimize the number of individual departmental reviews
  • Simplify and standardize online forms and checklists
  • Minimize local variations by establishing regional and statewide technical and procedures

California and Colorado have initiated caps on fees that can be automatically charged for PV installations. Vermont is using a streamlined statewide registration process to eliminate varying local permitting requirements.


The U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) SunShot Rooftop Solar Initiative promotes collaboration of diverse teams of local and state governments along with utilities, installers, and others to make solar energy more accessible and affordable. The program aims to make solar energy competitive with other forms of energy, without subsidy, by the end of the decade.

With the help of a $750,000 grant from the DOE as part of its SunShot Rooftop Solar Challenge, the city of Chicago recently launched a program called Chicago Solar Express. The project’s objective is to establish streamlined permitting, zoning, and interconnection processes focused on installations of residential and small commercial projects. The goal is to reduce wait times for solar permits from 30 days to one day, cut fees by 25 percent, and simplify and streamline related processes.

The local utility, ComEd, is involved as well. ComEd is set to launch an online interconnection and net metering tool to provide a convenient way for applicants to submit, track, and pay for applications and connect to the grid to receive credit on their bills for energy produced.


The findings of the LBNL study suggest that “streamlining the permitting process could potentially reduce the price of a 4-kW residential PV system by $1000 or more, on average, and cut development time by about a month.” I can’t help but think that the potential benefits from operating more efficiently could be much greater, extending beyond cost savings to include job growth, more effective government, and greater conservation of natural resources. To learn more about the design, installation, and sales of PV solar systems, check out Everblue’s hands-on Solar Training Courses. 

By Amy Malloy