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Tina Casey headshot

So, You Bought a Tesla Battery ... Now What?

By Tina Casey

Telsa Motors rolled out a new energy storage system last week, and the news set the Intertubes buzzing. Tesla's new Powerwall battery draws on the company's considerable experience in cutting-edge electric vehicle batteries, and translates it into neat, compact units for homes and small commercial users, as well as utility-scale users.

With the added benefit of solar energy storage, the new Tesla battery is winning hearts and minds, including those of us here at TriplePundit. However, therein lies the rub. If you want to get the biggest renewable energy bang out of your new Tesla battery, you're going to have to deal with the solar-installation permitting process. And depending on where your property is located, that can add up to one huge headache.

The soft cost of solar power

The sticky wicket is the so-called "soft cost" of solar power. Aside from the cost of the solar panels themselves, the cost of solar power also involves other factors such as the labor to install the panels, as well as considerable administrative costs related to local permits and grid connections.

On average, the soft costs of solar power can account for a good half of the total installed cost of a solar array.

Those costs -- and the headaches -- can increase even more when out-of-date, uncoordinated administrative systems are at play. For example, in some jurisdictions, a solar installation can practically breeze through the process relating to building permits -- only to bump into a months-long delay relating to the required grid connection.

The Obama administration's far-reaching SunShot solar power initiative includes a raft of programs aimed at reducing soft costs, partly by encouraging local jurisdictions to streamline their permitting processes.

Seamless solar power

While these federally-coordinated efforts may take some time to gain traction, some individual jurisdictions are already be ahead of the game.

That's thanks to a number of software companies that have been working with local governments to streamline their administrative systems in general, and solar permitting in particular.

We connected with one such company, Accela, and a phone conversation with Rob Cassetti, the company's senior VP of sales and marketing, gave us some insights into the kinds of solutions that are already beginning to percolate up. The result is a revved-up workflow that saves money for local governments as well as property owners and contractors.

One standout example is San Diego County, which adopted Accela's automated process to achieve a weeklong turnaround on a permitting process that previously took two to three months.

In addition to the software itself, Cassetti described a number of other interesting technology-oriented solutions that Accela can leverage through its open-source approach to partnerships.

One good example is provided by an Accela partner called VuSpex, which uses a Skype-type mobile platform to enable inspectors to "meet" a contractor onsite for a video inspection.

Another Accela partner in development is Inspector Buddy, which envisions a robotic device that can inspect and report on locations that would be difficult, dangerous or expensive for human inspectors to view in person.

Accela has been in the business for about 15 years, and as described by Cassetti, the company's experience with municipal permitting informs its approach to the solar power conundrum:

"Part of our strategy is to get out in front ... We really feel like we understand permitting, [but] a municipality also has to have a technology aptitude, a 'sense of adventure.'"

In other words, Accela understands that for all the high-tech advances in the solar power field, in many local jurisdictions the permitting process is still rooted in the tried and true boots-on-the-ground approach.

While larger solar-friendly cities like New York may have the resources to make the transition by developing their own systems, Accela has developed a permitting package or "template" solution for smaller municipalities, which can be modified as needed once the basic systems are in place.

An energy storage twist on solar-friendliness

As Cassetti noted during our conversation, solar power is an economic development catalyst. Forward-thinking cities and states have been leveraging solar-friendliness to build a green brand and attract new businesses, as well as new talent, and streamlining the permitting process is part and parcel of those efforts.

The new Tesla battery underscores how energy storage can work with solar power to boost a community's green brand. As new energy storage products take hold in the residential and commercial sectors, consumer demand will help motivate local governments to invest in more efficient, streamlined permitting processes.

In the meantime, before you invest a bundle in energy storage and/or a solar installation, make sure you check in with your local regulators and be aware of any obstacles you may encounter along the way.

Image credit (screenshot): Courtesy of Tesla Motors.

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Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

Read more stories by Tina Casey