Problems Holding the Solar Industry Back

Long Island Solar Farm

By Ardelia Lee

The solar industry has finally hit its stride. A new report released by the Solar Energy Industries Association shows that photovoltaics grew 11 percent over quarter four in 2014. That’s great news for solar installers and advocates everywhere.

However, solar’s growth could be even larger if the industry took some time to tackle two of the problems keeping the solar industry from reaching its full potential.

A lengthy, complicated permit process

Permitting is an essential part of the solar installation process. However, it’s a step that installers often struggle with. The permit process is often lengthy and complicated, with no clear answers for installers or authorities having jurisdiction (AHJs).

There are over 18,000 AHJs in the U.S. The permitting process varies widely between each AHJ, and it generally involves two and up to five agencies. This leads to confusion and, unnecessary delays, and resubmitting of documents. All of these factors cost installers and AHJs money.

In a survey conducted by Clean Power Finance, 24 percent of installers surveyed said they had to resubmit their plans or documents to receive a permit. Thirteen percent of installers said their AHJ’s requirements changed in the middle of the job.

AHJs have to balance safety with speed when it comes to approving permits, but some AHJs are hindering the growth of solar in their area. Because of the difficulty they have in getting permits, 36 percent of installers choose not to install solar in specific AHJs.

To expedite the permit process while maintaining safety standards, the solar industry needs to lobby for a standardized national solar permitting process. A standardized process would reduce the time and money spent on permitting for both installers and AHJs.

Using the same rules, procedures, and paperwork across the country would streamline the process and enable installers to complete projects in a timely manner. To improve the permitting process further, we could adopt an expedited permitting process for installers who have a good track record with permits.

Interconnection timeline

There’s nothing more exciting than finally being able to connect a solar system to the grid. Unfortunately, it’s not always as simple as filling out paperwork and flipping a switch. Bumbling interconnection processes have made the interconnection timeline longer and more frustrating than it should be.

When looking at distributed solar interconnection challenges and best practices, the Solar Electric Power Association discovered that part of the issue stems from the fact that fewer than five percent of utilities process 75 percent of distributed solar power interconnections. That’s a huge imbalance in work load for a select group of utilities.

To add to the problem, the application process itself is often clunky and outdated. In most cases, customers and installers lack clear guidelines and either fill out the wrong paperwork or turn in incomplete applications. Online applications are a rarity, but utilities are increasingly interested in using online applications to speed their processing times.

Currently, only 17 percent of utilities are able to process interconnection applications online. Not surprisingly, utilities that use online applications are able to process their applications twice as quickly as utilities that don’t.

On average, it takes about four weeks from the time an interconnection application is submitted to the time it’s approved. However, utilities using an online system cut that in half. They average two weeks to approval.

The lengthy, often confusing interconnection process costs installers and utilities time. It’s in both parties’ best interest to streamline the application process. Utilities need to continue to transition to an online application system. Interconnection guidelines and paperwork need to be readily available to solar installers and customers.

Modernizing institutions

The common denominator in the solar permitting process and the interconnection timeline is an outdated system. Before the number of solar installations skyrocketed, the way AHJs and utilities handled applications was feasible. It wasn’t the best way to handle applications, but the volume of solar permits and interconnection applications was so low, that it didn’t really matter.

Now, however, some utility companies face a backlog of applications, and AHJs are finding it difficult to keep up with installer activity. The solar industry needs to push for a streamlined, modernized way of handling applications. It’s time to stop holding solar back.

Ardelia Lee is the lead content creator for GreenLancer. You can see more of her work here.

Image credit: Flickr/Brookhaven National Laboratory

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