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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

"It is the beginning of a snowball effect," she said. "The question is really once you have these tools developed from the DOE ... are you going to see a general movement in the right direction?"

Colorado Passes Landmark Law

Vote Solar worked actively with the to promote that state's , which Gov. John Hickenlooper signed into law in May, and which took effect on June 10.

Solar advocates consider the law a landmark measure in the nation's third-largest solar market behind California and New Jersey, with nearly 70 megawatts in installed solar capacity.

The measure prevents state and local agencies from charging excessive fees for permits and plan reviews by capping costs at $500 for residential solar electric systems or water heaters, and at $1,000 for commercial permits up to 2 megawatts. The legislation runs through 2018.

In of 34 local Colorado jurisdictions, Vote Solar found that the average permit fee costs $498 and takes seven business days to issue. The organization recommends a permit fee of $250 or less and says that permits should be turned around in a day.

"So many transactions can be removed from the process to make it faster with relatively small changes," Rose said.

Rose noted that an earlier Vote Solar survey of more than 550 permitting agencies in 23 states found that less than 15 provided solar permitting information online, and even fewer allowed for online application submissions.

In some areas, a lengthy inspection process requires construction crews to remain onsite for several hours or to make multiple trips. Solar installers rack up the extra costs, which are then passed on to homeowners, she said.

"Little work has been done to figure out what the AHJ [authority having jurisdiction] needs to make the process easier," she said. "We don't know what the solutions are, and that's why we have this DOE challenge."

Vermont Experience to Offer Clues

Vermont's latest energy bill might also provide some clues on permitting efficiency.

Gov. Peter Shumlin in May signed the Vermont Energy Act of 2011, a comprehensive renewable energy bill that would allow small-scale solar customers to bypass the traditional permitting process altogether.

Starting in January 2012, owners of solar systems up to 5 kilowatts in size will complete a registration form and a certificate of compliance with grid connection requirements. The local utility will then have 10 days to raise any interconnection concerns.

"There is a fiscal and environmental urgency for Vermont to move off fossil fuels and toward sustainable sources of power," Shumlin said at a .

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