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How Local Solar Permitting Impacts the Cost of Your Solar Panels

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The words "Solar Permitting" on top of a home's blueprint, representing the complex way that local solar permitting impacts the solar panel installation process, including timeline, requirements, and costs.
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Solar panel installation requires detailed electrical and construction work, including connecting your solar power system to the electricity grid. In most jurisdictions, both your local government and the utility company for your area typically require several essential building and/or electrical permits or approvals before you can install your solar energy system and enjoy the benefits of clean energy. As a result, this process of applying for and getting solar permits can affect the cost and timing of your solar installation.

Permitting and approvals are important because they ensure that your solar panels meet the required building and electrical codes in your area. However, the solar permitting process is also bureaucratic and can slow down the installation process in ways neither you nor your solar installation company can control. With this article, we will look at how local solar permitting impacts the solar panel installation process, including timeline, requirements, and costs.

What Is Local Solar Permitting?

The local solar permitting and interconnection process requires approval by two entities before your solar panel system can be installed:

1) Local Building Authority - Often referred to as your Authority Having Jurisdiction or "AHJ." This governmental agency reviews and approves all required building, electrical, and/or solar PV permits.

2) Electric Utility Company In Your Area - They need to review and approve your application for interconnection to the distribution grid.

In both cases, the solar permit application process requires detailed documentation on your approach, including location plan, site plan, roof specifications, wiring schematics, and system components, among others.

If you’re wondering, “Do I need a permit for solar panels?” the short answer is “Yes!” Local solar permitting ensures that your home’s solar array meets the required electrical and structural requirements in your area, and is a necessary step when going solar. The permitting process takes four basic steps:

  1. In most cases, either you as the homeowner or the solar installation company you hired will submit the applications for permits and interconnection. Solar permit application requirements will vary by location, but typically contain information about the electrical and structural design of the system, as certified and sealed by a professional engineer.
  2. Once all permits and approvals have been secured, the contractors are then permitted to install your solar panel system and related scopes of work.
  3. After the installation, your local permitting authorities will likely require a final site inspection to be completed.
  4. Once your solar energy system passes the inspection, Palmetto can then apply for “Permission To Operate” or PTO from your utility company. Once granted, you can turn on your solar power system and begin creating electricity from solar energy.

Keep in mind that solar permitting requirements do differ substantially from one city and electric utility company to another. Some jurisdictions even have multiple overlapping authorities tasked with approving single projects. This can complicate matters for solar panel installation companies as they navigate permitting applications across different localities.

Despite these challenges, some regions have streamlined permitting practices to make it easier and less expensive to install solar panel systems, including:

  • Allowing online submissions for solar permit applications
  • Making permitting application information publicly available
  • Capping how long officials can take to process permit applications
  • Reducing municipality-specific permit requirements

How Long Does It Take to Get a Solar Permit?

The timing will depend on the state and the city where you live, but 2-6 weeks is a good rule of thumb. The relevant authorities will review the engineered design before granting approvals for installation, and inspect the solar energy system after installation to ensure it was installed according to all relevant building codes and standards, in order to safely activate.

Luckily, you don't have to go through this process all by yourself. Instead, you can hire the services of a solar energy company like Palmetto. Although we cannot control the time it takes to get your permit approved, we do have experts on staff who understand your city's rules, regulations, and license requirements, and they can help streamline the process wherever possible.

What is the Solar Permit Filing Process?

Solar permitting involves several steps, making it the most time-consuming step in the solar installation process. Before the permit process begins, you’ll start by working with an experienced residential solar installation company to plan and design your project. Based on your home, energy consumption, local climate, and goals for going solar, they will use this information to design your solar energy system and build an estimate or line-item quote.

Once you approve your design, your solar company can then help you complete all necessary documentation and application forms to begin the permit filing process:

Step 1: Apply for Interconnection

Once you have the engineered plans and have completed the requisite electric utility applications and forms, you can apply for interconnection with your utility company. Interconnection and approval allow you to connect your solar energy system to the existing electricity grid.

After you or your solar provider submit the application, the utility company will review the component spec sheets and the wiring diagram to ensure that the design meets all safety requirements.

Typically, the electric utility company will confirm that the specs of your plan adhere to IEEE 1547 grid codes and applicable equipment requirements, paying specific attention to the system size and offset thresholds set for solar net metering. Since this review varies by utility, you should work with an established solar installer like Palmetto that can navigate those variances effectively.

The essential design specification they look for include:

  • The location of your utility meter
  • The proposed photovoltaic or PV array, including the layout of your roof and any obstacles
  • The number of solar panels and inverters used in your project, including the manufacturer and installation process
  • The capacity rating for your proposed power inverter and photovoltaic panels

Step 2: Complete Application Forms for Your Local AHJ

Authority Having Jurisdictions or AHJs include any person, organization, or office that monitors all manner of solar panel installation to confirm everything is up to code and adheres to various regulations. In most cases, this will be your local building department, though there may be additional AHJs depending on your location.

The application forms are typically 10-15 pages long, and include the following:

  • Solar panel wiring diagrams
  • Fire safety rating
  • Site map
  • Labels and placard placement map for PV systems
  • Certifications for the panels and the mounting hardware

It can be very time-consuming to compile all required materials, which is why it’s often easier to just rely upon the experience and knowledge of your solar provider or solar panel installer to take care of the permitting details for you.

Step 3: Apply for Building Permits

The required permits will vary by location and may include a building permit for solar panel installation, an electrical permit, and/or a PV or solar permit. Your local AHJs will review your application to ensure the project design complies with local building codes and safety requirements.

For example, the building department will confirm that your roof can handle the extra weight of the solar energy system. While most newer homes have roofs strong enough to handle the additional weight, older homes may have dated or damaged roofs that cannot safely support a solar array. In some cases, your home may require additional work, such as a re-roof or an electrical upgrade, before you can secure permits and proceed with solar panel installation.

It takes time to process your building permit, and a rejected permit application may increase the timeline to installation. It can also increase your potential costs if the local building official determines that the home needs a reroof or electrical upgrade to support the solar panels.

Step 4: Secure Approvals

After submitting your applications for permits, the Authority Having Jurisdictions and the utility company will review your applications and provide an approval or rejection. If they find any issues that require adjusting, they will decline the application and provide you with feedback to help you make the necessary revisions and re-submit for approval.

Once permits have been granted and the interconnection application approved, your solar company can begin the installation process.

Step 5: Schedule the Inspection

After installation but before you can switch on your solar power system, you need to schedule a final inspection. Inspections are required to ensure that your solar energy system was installed consistent with product specs and all applicable electrical, building, and fire codes and regulations in your area. While some jurisdictions may call for an inspection during the installation, all jurisdictions require a final inspection before you power on your savings.

Step 6: Apply for Permission to Operate or PTO

Once the building inspector approves your system, you can apply for “Permission to Operate” (PTO) with your utility company. In most cases, a utility technician may visit your home to ensure that your solar energy system meets electrical safety and metering guidelines. They can also install a new bi-directional energy meter capable of tracking both the energy you consume and the energy you produce, so the electric utility can credit your account accordingly.

As you can see, these processes vary greatly across jurisdictions and territories. While some have been reformed and improved to be more efficient, many still take longer than you might expect, which can delay the installation of your solar panels. However, it's essential to note that thorough and proper permitting is necessary to guarantee that your solar power system is installed and operates as it should for years to come.

Reasons Local Solar Permitting Increases Installation Costs

The local solar permitting process can quickly increase the soft costs of the rooftop solar installation process. (Soft costs are any non-hardware-related costs associated with going solar, such as permitting, marketing, and financing.) Part of the reason is that there are a lot of AHJs to keep track of, and each can have its own process, requirements, and timelines. For example, Palmetto is licensed with thousands of AHJs all across the country.

While it’s an important step to ensure the safety and longevity of your solar power system, it’s helpful to understand the impact this has on your total cost of going solar.

Research and Engineering Costs

Depending on the jurisdiction, the installer may need to research the code, customize installation drawings, and apply for zoning approval before installing. In addition to being costly, this stage can be time-consuming, as the permit needs to be reviewed by a professional engineer before approval.

In-Person Submission Requirements

Some cities require you to drop off the permit application in person. If you live far from the local permitting offices, dropping the permit packages in person or enlisting solar permit services will cost you more fuel, resources, and time, adding to the cost of solar installation.

Application and Permit Fees

Different jurisdictions charge varying permit fees to account for various expenses. Unfortunately, the solar installer has no control over these charges, and they often can’t predict them during the planning and design stage.

Variation in Building Requirements

In addition to the state or national code requirements, local jurisdictions sometimes have other conditions you must meet before you can use your solar panel system, including:

  • Large fire barriers
  • Labeling
  • Extra disconnects to turn off the system
  • Excessive roof penetrations

How the Solar Industry Can Streamline the Solar Permitting Process

As more people adopt solar energy, the local permitting authorities are becoming more cautious about the installation process. While taking extra time to do the job correctly is important, new policies and regulations can also slow the permitting process and increase solar energy installation costs.

Thankfully, this has also created opportunities for solar companies and the solar energy industry to intervene with process improvements. While individual solar companies cannot override the local laws and regulations governing the installation, they can still take steps to streamline the solar permitting process.

As part of the quest to simplify the permitting process, the U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory and the U.S. Department of Energy launched the Solar Automated Permit Processing (SolarAPP+). This free web-based platform makes it easy for the local governments and solar installers to safely expedite the solar review and installation process.

How the Solar Automated Permit Processing Could Change the Game

SolarAPP+ provides solar permit specialists and solar panel installers across the country with a standardized permitting process for residential installations. As more people switch to solar energy, permitting officials can become overwhelmed by the applications, causing unnecessary delays.

The Solar Automated Permit Process acts as a lifesaver to the staff. By using SolarAPP+, local governments can process and issue permits in a more efficient manner.

The application achieves this standardization by reviewing solar project applications for building code compliance and automatically approving those that meet the required specifications. The tool's methodology is based on the International Solar Energy Provisions, the codes used by nearly half of the country's permitting authorities. In addition, jurisdictions can incorporate the tool into their existing licensing systems to enhance safety and code compliance.

Key Benefits of Using Solar Automated Permit Processing

  • Automated Permitting: SolarAPP+ provides a flexible web-based permitting tool for a residential solar system installation at no extra cost to the local governments.
  • Safety Verification: The tool evaluates all applications for safety and code compliance before approval.
  • Reduces Installation Timeframe: Since the tool standardizes the instant permitting process, permits can be approved the same day. As a result, the tool saves time and resources for the AHJs, solar companies, and customers.
  • Room for Future Expansion: While SolarAPP+ currently focuses on residential solar, it aims to incorporate energy storage in the future, and penetrate other market segments.

Local Solar Permitting and the Cost of Solar

The solar permitting process involves more than just walking down to City Hall and filling the permit forms. It requires you to prove that your project will adhere to local, state, and federal building standards before you can install your solar energy system.

There may be unforeseen costs or delays for many reasons, including variable permitting application or reapplication costs, backlogs in your local permitting office, and more. You may also find that your home requires additional work, such as a re-roof or an electrical upgrade before you can secure permits and proceed with the installation.

This is why it’s best to work with an experienced solar energy company when going solar, and why DIY Solar can be challenging. Solar companies like Palmetto have the knowledge and expertise to guide you through all the local solar permitting and interconnection steps, to ensure that your solar power system receives the necessary solar panel approval in a timely manner.

With solar permit specialists that are well-versed in what needs to happen in your area, you can navigate the bureaucracy effectively, keep your project on track, and keep your installation costs as low as possible.

At Palmetto, we pride ourselves in helping homeowners remove the guesswork in the installation process by providing end-to-end solutions that save you time and money. If you’re ready to get the necessary permits and start enjoying the benefits of solar energy ASAP, get started today with a Free Solar Design and Savings Estimate.

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