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NREL app speeds solar permitting process, study finds

An automated platform from NREL cuts an average of 12 business days from the rooftop solar permitting process.
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Nobody likes to wait.

And in rooftop solar, every added day spent waiting for a permit cuts into profit margins and sours the customer experience. These so-called soft costs can be a backbreaker.

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory spent years developing a tool to fix the problem through automation. Now, SolarAPP+ is ready for its big debut.

By integrating the web-based platform into local jurisdictions' permit management systems, SolarAPP+ has been able to save an average of 12 businesses days versus the traditional review process during a pilot study.

The SolarAPP+ is an online portal that automates permit plan review, better enabling what is expected to be an instant permit approval process for code-compliant residential PV systems. Based on national model building, electrical, and fire codes, SolarAPP+ performs a compliance check of permit inputs against code requirements and produces an inspection checklist that can be used to verify installation practices, workmanship, and adherence to the approved design.

NREL conducted a control trial pilot to validate SolarAPP+ performance. Five locations were selected for the pilot: Menifee, California; Pima County, Arizona; Pleasant Hill, California; Stockton, California; and Tucson, Arizona.

"It's a winner all the way around," said Anne Hoskins, Sunrun's chief policy officer.

NREL SolarAPP+ pilot study results

Sunrun supported NREL's development of the platform, which also supports battery storage applications. Hoskins said individual companies have tried in the past (and failed) to build a universal platform on their own. SolarAPP+ is free and open to any company and jurisdiction to use.

Hoskins said he doesn't believe permitting is the space to edge out competitors.

"In the past year, we've seen more companies come to the table on some of our bigger policy challenges." She said that signals a recognition of the critical role that policy plays in solar market growth of this market.

So far, 12 communities are using SolarAPP+ across the country, according to NREL, with more than 3,500 permits issued through the platform. Another 100 communities have expressed interest in SolarAPP+ or are at some stage of integrating the platform into their systems.

Therein lies the biggest challenge: there are thousands of permitting jurisdictions. A national installer like Sunrun needs jurisdictions to realize that SolarAPP+ exists.

NREL said the residential solar PV market has grown from around 50,000 system installations in 2010 to more than 420,000 systems in 2020. Most of those systems were required to apply for a building permit from one of more than 20,000 authorities having jurisdiction.

NREL said that nationally, both average and median permit review times exceed 5 business days. In some places, they can stretch to a month or more. At the same time, many residential solar systems are simple and standardized, allowing for software to automate the permitting process for those systems.

In September, Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm wrote a letter urging mayors across the country to adopt the SolarAPP+ platform.

"At this point, we've permitted over 500 projects on SolarAPP+ and we've saved over 5,000 days waiting for current approvals, which is huge, right?," Hoskins said. "But that's still pretty small for the number of projects we have."

You can find more information about SolarAPP+ here.

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