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Cost of Rooftop Solar Power Set for Another Steep Plunge

Tina Casey headshotWords by Tina Casey
Energy & Environment
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Rooftop solar arrays can be a valuable asset for businesses seeking clean power, and new financing tools make it easier than ever to avoid up-front costs. However, the process of buying a rooftop solar array can still be intimidating. It is not unusual for solar customers to lose interest after their project gets bogged down by long processing times for permits, inspections and grid connections.

That’s about to change, if the new “SolarApp” program goes according to plan.

What’s keeping the cost of rooftop solar up?

For solar installers, the processing issue is more than a simple matter of losing customers. The installer also loses money on advertising, outreach and other administrative costs.

Those costs end up being reflected in the price paid by other clients. In other words, everyone pays.

The impact on the cost of rooftop solar is a significant one when multiplied across the U.S. solar industry. Administrative “soft costs” make rooftop far solar more expensive in the U.S. than in other countries with a mature solar industry.

According to the Energy Department’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory, soft costs tack thousands of dollars on to the total price of an installed rooftop solar array in the U.S.

Some of those costs could be avoided by streamlining the permitting process, and that’s where SolarApp comes in.

Rooftop solar made easy: there’s an app for that

SolarApp stands for the proposed “Solar Automated Permit Processing” software platform. Spearheaded by leading solar industry stakeholders, the campaign to create SolarApp addresses to the heart of the problem. More than 20,000 different authorities in the U.S. have jurisdiction over different elements of rooftop solar installations. That includes permits, inspections, application fees and grid connections.

The SolarApp campaign seeks to streamline the process for residential, commercial, and industrial rooftop solar into a single, nationwide online portal that includes federal, state, and local authorities.

In contrast to a process that can take months, SolarApp aims at practically “instantaneous” approval for most routine solar projects. The campaign also seeks to create national standards for safety and quality, and it also accommodates the growing popularity of solar systems paired with energy storage.

Who wants to cut the cost of rooftop solar?

There is some heavy firepower behind the campaign to bring SolarApp into being.

Last week, the U.S. Energy Department of Energy assigned an award of $695,000 to its National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) to help get SolarAPP off the ground.

NREL will function as an independent, third-party software developer for the solar industry. The non-profit Solar Foundation is an ongoing partner of the Department of Energy, and it will spearhead a an industry stakeholder group that includes the Solar Energy Industries Association, the California Solar + Storage Association and the Institute for Building Technology and Safety - along with the leading solar installers SunPower, Sunrun, Tesla and Vivint Solar.

The effort could also get a boost from scores of U.S. cities that are involved in SolSmart, another Energy Department-Solar Foundation partnership that encourages local governments to speed up the processing time for solar permits.

Why rooftop solar is still a good deal, soft costs or not

Even without SolarApp in hand, a growing number of U.S. businesses can easily access solar through a clean power option provided by their utility.

Still, a rooftop solar array provides benefits that can’t be matched by a line item on a utility bill.

Although initial up-front costs are relatively high in the U.S., a rooftop solar array can still save money over its lifespan. In contrast, utilities can charge a premium for clean power.

When paired with energy storage, the benefits of rooftop solar multiply. Storage systems can cut the payback period down by years. They also provide businesses with access to zero emission backup power in emergencies, and they create more opportunities to avoid peak demand charges and participate in other “smart grid” initiatives.

Businesses with excess solar capacity on their roofs can also take advantage of opportunities to sell or share their clean power with the community.

The visual impact of rooftop arrays

Above all, rooftop solar panels also form a powerful, high-visibility demonstration of a business’s commitment to climate action.

That’s important from a bottom line perspective because evidence is growing that public opinion favors clean power regardless of partisan political affiliation. Climate change is a growing concern among younger adults, a key advertising demographic.

A recent Deloitte study underscores that businesses can — and should — respond to consumer expectations for clean power.

Deloitte found that consumers still tend to waffle on rooftop solar because they are intimidated by the process. In contrast, businesses are aggressively pursuing it.

With or without SolarApp, there are plenty of good reasons for commercial ratepayers to go solar.

Image credit: Biel Morro/Unsplash

Tina Casey headshotTina Casey

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. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.

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