Insights Broadening Solar PV Implementation

(Originally Published in the December issue of ICMA's online magazine PM Plus)

by Christopher Doyle

The solar PV industry provides a great opportunity for creating jobs, saving energy, and putting money back into local economies. But the industry faces many barriers to growth including implementation costs, permitting inefficiencies, lack of broad understanding about its economic and environmental benefits, and the absence of national standards and best practices to guide growth.

This article examines the basic concepts of solar PV and strategies for supporting broader implementation focusing particularly on accelerating progress and efficiency in permitting and inspecting residential and small, commercial solar PV installations. It is based on the Institute for Building Technology and Safety’s (IBTS) knowledge of solar PV and building inspection processes.

What Is Solar PV?

Solar photovoltaic (PV) is a method of generating electrical power by converting solar radiation into electricity. Solar panels that contain PV material are commonly installed on the ground or rooftops of commercial and residential buildings where they absorb solar radiation and convert the energy into usable electricity for the building on which they sit.

The energy is not a constant flow due to the fact that the availability of sunlight does not conveniently coincide with a building’s energy demand. Therefore, a small amount of electricity can be stored on-site, while the remaining is sent back to the electrical lines as a type of credit, commonly referred to as "net metering."

Most utility providers allow net metering as a replacement for the electricity that they purchase or produce through a power plant. Ideally, the total amount of produced electricity versus consumed over a year offset each other, creating a "net zero" building, assuming electricity is a building's sole energy source.

A net zero building has no carbon emissions and no outside utility energy use because electricity is all created on-site with an environmentally friendly, renewable source. Not all solar PV installations provide enough electricity to offset an entire building’s energy demand but the installations will always substantially reduce the demand on the electricity that the utility provides.

The solar PV industry has a diverse group of stakeholders, including the PV equipment manufacturer, PV equipment installation contractor, local utility provider, financing firms, and the local government or jurisdiction responsible for permitting and building code enforcement (often referred to as the authority having jurisdiction or AHJ). The process of manufacturing and installing the panel, inspecting for building code compliance, and connecting to the energy grid is expensive and not yet fine-tuned enough to allow the solar PV market to survive without government or utility subsidies.

Examples of current market subsidies include industry-specific research grants, federal tax credits, and utility rebates. For the solar PV market to achieve long-term success, it must become self-sustaining.  

Permitting Inefficiencies Raise Costs

Overcoming inefficiencies associated with the diversity of standards and requirements both for the utility connection and permitting jurisdiction provide one of the greatest opportunities for reducing soft costs, improving customer experience, and broadening use of solar PV as an alternative energy source.

Utility interconnection is the process through which a building connects to the electric power grid that would allow net metering. It involves application, review, and field inspection steps and is typically facilitated by the electric utility provider. How the utility interconnection process is carried out varies significantly among utility providers. This lack of uniformity in interconnection applications and standards is a major source of inefficiencies and increased costs for the utility provider, contractor, and end-user.

The contractor must be familiar with all application procedures, many of which are still based on hard-copy applications rather than online systems. For example, PG&E, one of the largest utility providers in the country, is planning to migrate to an online application process near the end of 2012, relying on its paper process in the meantime. Utility providers are spending unnecessary time rejecting or correcting applications that have not been completed properly.

In addition to the utility interconnection process, the PV contractor and building owner must simultaneously undergo a separate permit and inspection process with the local authority, which enforces building-code laws with similar application, review, and field inspection steps. Solar PV installations are making their way to new areas across the country, bringing along with them the liability and responsibility that local governments must accept when administering the permit and building-code inspection process. Similar to the utility interconnection process, each individual government has its own criteria for permit application and inspection, which can cause substantial inefficiencies for contractors working across multiple jurisdictions.

Of even greater concern is the absence of any universally adopted national building code specifically addressing residential solar PV installations. Local governments enforce solar installations based on their adopted general building code—for example, 2009 ICC International Residential Code—that does not specifically address the use of solar panels and related building safety measures.

Some communities have adapted well based on both a high interest in using solar energy and local expertise. Don Hughes, for example, who is senior building inspector for Santa Clara County, California, said his department currently performs more than 150 solar PV plan reviews and inspections per year. The county has been able to allocate resources for the necessary education and training for its staff to support expanded use of solar PV.

In contrast, other governments have set significant limits on the number of permit applications they will accept annually for solar PV installations—as low as five per year—because of the time and expertise required to facilitate the proper plan review, inspection, and permit.

To meet growing demand, some local governments have turned to such third-party providers as Burnham Energy or the Institute for Building Technology and Safety (IBTS) to provide properly trained and experienced plan examiners and solar PV field inspectors at a reasonable per unit cost. While the use of third-party providers can meet the need for properly trained inspectors to oversee solar PV installations, the absence of universally adopted permitting and inspection standards remains an obstacles to success.

Multiple Solutions

Solutions are all contingent on each jurisdiction first making a conscious effort at a policy level to embrace the solar PV industry and its effort to attack inefficiencies and reduce unnecessary costs and time delays. Such industry interconnection, permit, and inspection work groups as SolarTech turn to three fundamental components of the proposed solutions: 1) uniform standards, best practices, and policies; 2) ongoing education and training; and 3) commitment to reducing permit fees, expedited plan review, and field code inspections.

In jurisdictions with little solar PV activity, the costs associated with development of standards and best practices may not warrant this action. . There are, however, some excellent resources provided at no cost by federal agencies and national industry associations to ease the burden for local jurisdictions. Centrally developed standards, best practices, and well-crafted model policies provide local governments with successfully tested resources to create their own local implementation framework. Broad adoption of nationally developed standards would greatly reduce the learning curve and costs associated with both the utility interconnection and jurisdiction permit and inspection processes across a large market.

Education and training is the second part of the solution. This should include a commitment to engage the utility, local government, and local workforce in an ongoing education program that addresses technical and procedural gaps identified over time.

The third solution is a commitment by policymakers and jurisdiction personnel to set, monitor, and achieve industry-standard permit costs and plan review and inspection lead times. Permit costs are calculated in a variety of methods using such metrics as construction value, square footage, and cost of technical review. These costs should be reviewed with neighboring communities for competitiveness.

The time the local installer must wait for a plan review and field inspection—sometimes as long as 60 days—is often a bigger deterrent than high permit costs. Building departments should set aggressive goals of 10-day solar PV plan review and 30-day commercial, along with a commitment to a 24-hour turnaround on all field code inspections.

Regardless of the specific measures taken, proper policy attention with a focus on economic development of renewable energy sources, standardization, and ongoing education will be the foundation that provides the solar PV industry with the proper tools to create a sustainable, renewable alternative energy source for communities across the country.


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