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DOE Explores a New Frontier In Quest for Cheaper Solar Panels

The DOE is working with utilities and local governments to streamline U.S. solar permitting — a 'new frontier for solar cost decline,' says advocacy group

By Maria Gallucci, SolveClimate News

Jun 30, 2011
solar panel installation

Installing rooftop solar arrays could become far more affordable for American homeowners if new federal and state initiatives to streamline permitting take hold nationwide.

The cumbersome costs of siting, permitting, installing and connecting small-scale solar make up an increasing percentage of overall system fees — up to 40 percent — while the price of photovoltaic panels continues to drop.

The latest effort to slash these so-called balance-of-system costs comes from the U.S. Department of Energy, which in early June announced a $12.5 million as part of its SunShot Initiative.

The SunShot program is working with utilities, software providers and local governments to eliminate 75 percent of the total installation costs for solar energy systems by 2020.

According to by San Francisco-based solar installer , local permitting and inspection can add 50 cents per watt — or up to $2,500 per home installation — to the cost of a 5-kilowatt rooftop system.

Ramamoorthy Ramesh, who directs the DOE's and SunShot programs, said anywhere from 200 to 1,000 municipal governments would be eligible to compete for cash to lower the dollars and hours spent on solar installations.

"The [Rooftop Solar] Challenge is to the entire country, and specifically to cities and municipalities," he told reporters on a June 23 conference call. "We want them to come up with new ideas.

"We decided to make this a very uniform, simple process so that if you ... want to put a solar panel on your roof, you can do it in a short time period and with a minimal cost," he continued.

Teams of local and regional governments will develop step-by-step plans for how to standardize permitting processes, update planning and zoning codes, improve standards for connecting to the electrical grid and increase access to financing, he said.

Such plans "will make it easier for investors to capitalize on all of the benefits of solar energy technologies, support jobs for solar installers, create new opportunities for small solar companies across the country and help the U.S. remain a top competitor in this key renewable energy market," Ramesh on a DOE blog.

Streamlined Permitting: A 'New Frontier'

Although the DOE announced the challenge on June 1, the telepresser came only days after environmentalists criticized the Obama administration's failure to put solar panels and a water heater on the White House by the spring of this year.

Bill McKibben, the author and activist who founded the advocacy group , and who led a campaign last year to get the White House to go solar, said the missed deadline shows that climate change is not high on the presidential agenda.

"I think [Obama] is just concentrating on other things, and that to him global warming is a second-tier problem," he wrote in a

Ramesh that the department "remains on the path to complete the White House solar demonstration project, in keeping with our commitment."

The DOE's solar challenge, meanwhile, could provide a vital start to creating a cheaper and faster permitting process for rooftops nationwide, said Gwen Rose, deputy director of the San Francisco advocacy group Vote Solar.

Streamlined permitting "is the new frontier for solar cost decline," she told SolveClimate News.

She added that while $12.5 million was a relatively small amount of funding for a national program, the Rooftop Solar Challenge could build a foundation for other agencies looking to scrap the red tape and cut costs.

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