When the Great Recession of 2008 and 2009 caused the U.S. to shed 8.7 million jobs, it was public-sector, rather than private-sector, jobs that took the longest to rebound. Positions supporting state, local and federal government didn’t return to 2008 levels until 2019 — just in time to get squeezed again by the coronavirus pandemic.
In Arizona’s Pima County, the local permitting office lost about 60 percent of its staff amid the 2008-2009 economic downturn, said Carla Blackwell, an employee of the county for two decades and now its director of development services. Blackwell’s office, which processes building permits, now employs about 50 people, she said, down from about 180 pre-recession.
For many cities and counties, the pandemic brought about a familiar pinch in resources, complicating the already onerous work of processing and approving building permits — including those for rooftop solar.
But it put one potential solution to speed solar permitting on a fast track: a Department of Energy-funded app designed to drastically speed up permitting for home solar projects, called Solar Automated Permitting Processing Plus (SolarApp+).
On Thursday, the DOE's National Renewable Energy Laboratory announced it's making the app available to a wider group of local governments after pilot tests conducted at select agencies over the past year showed promise.
Pima County was one of those pilot sites. Over the past five years, solar applications in the county have doubled and now account for about one-fifth of total permit load, Blackwell said.
Despite that workload, Blackwell said the county was able to take the pandemic in stride, due in large part to an electronic permitting system put in place after the last economic downturn. The county kept up its pace enough that in late summer of 2020 it was able to begin helping Tucson, its largest city, work through a permitting backlog, just as the state was crawling out from under a surge in coronavirus cases.
“So many of these permits were solar that we started to look for an alternative way to handle them,” said Blackwell. It was around that time that both jurisdictions learned of SolarApp.
Cutting solar soft costs
Pima County has been piloting the app since January, using it to process about 250 to 300 solar permit applications each month. The app has helped reduce permit processing times from five days to just one day, according to Blackwell.
These are the kind of improvements that SolarApp’s engineers hope will significantly reduce the costs associated with residential solar. The platform offers U.S. states, cities and counties a way to instantaneously approve solar systems that agencies historically have taken weeks to rubber-stamp.
The time and costs of working through local permitting add to the “soft costs” for solar installations. This category of costs, encompassing everything but a system’s actual hardware, accounts for between 55 and 60 percent of the price for a home solar installation, according to the latest data from Wood Mackenzie.
“As you streamline permitting and…some of the inspection pieces, which SolarApp can do, you can then reduce costs to end users and thereby expand the market,” said Jeff Cook, an analyst at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) who works on SolarApp.
From pilot to rollout
NREL has been working on SolarApp since 2018, with partners including the Solar Foundation and the Solar Energy Industries Association. The app has gained support from some of the industry’s largest residential solar companies, such as Sunrun and SunPower. It's also caught the attention of cities such as Modesto, California and garnered investment from the Department of Energy.
Overall, the app has secured $7 million for development, with the majority slated to come from the federal government. NREL's plans to expand it to a wider swath of jurisdictions will be supported by a partnership with Accela, which provides government software to more than 80 percent of the largest cities in the U.S., according to the company.
Initially, NREL plans to target the 1,500 U.S. jurisdictions with the highest volume of solar permit applications. Three hundred of those jurisdictions, including Pima County, already use Accela. NREL is also in talks with other large government software providers. SolarApp integrates with those programs as a “turnkey, flip-a-switch solution,” said Cook.
When rolled out across software programs, the app will be available for free to governments. Solar installers must pay a fee of $25 per application. That fee has not appeared to dim interest in the program, according to Cook, who said the app generally sees five or six new installer registrations every day.
“Because [jurisdictions] are so overwhelmed with permits right now, they need a solution,” said Cook. “There appears to be a correlation with delivering instant permitting and delivering more solar applications, and ultimately [increasing] deployment as a result.”
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