Solar industry leaders launch new initiative to automate solar project permitting

solar permitting red tape

A big issue still holding back the U.S. solar industry in areas around the country is cumbersome and inconsistent permitting and inspection processes. This is an issue we covered in-depth in “Shadow Costs,” the cover feature of our Sept./Oct. issue. With the support of industry leaders, the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) and The Solar Foundation are kicking off Solar Power International week by unveiling the Solar Automated Permit Processing (SolarAPP) initiative, which they say will streamline permitting and slash the cost of solar installations.

Today, the permitting and inspection process adds about $7,000 in direct and indirect costs, approximately $1.00 per watt, to a typical residential solar energy system. In addition to reducing the expense of solar installations, SolarAPP improves the efficiency of going solar by creating a rules-based, automated permitting and inspection process.

“The goal is to make solar permitting more straightforward, and more routine, while at the same time maintaining the safety and reliability that U.S. solar projects are known for,” said SEIA’s president and CEO Abigail Ross Hopper. “SolarAPP will cut unnecessary red tape, while saving Americans thousands of dollars. By making the process of going solar more efficient, both our companies and their customers win.”

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“Reforming the solar and battery permitting process is one of the most significant steps our country can take to making solar more affordable for all,” said Lynn Jurich, CEO of Sunrun. “There is a patchwork of inconsistent permitting procedures and standards across the U.S. and our customers pay the high costs of navigating this system. We have an opportunity to help the industry invest in a million more solar roofs over the next 5 years from the savings by making the permitting process faster, while ensuring safety and reliability for all.”

The following reforms are involved:

• A safety and skills training and certification program that allows residential and small commercial solar and battery storage installers to attest that their projects are compliant with applicable codes, laws, and industry practices, thus eliminating the need for a traditional multi-step permitting process;

• A simple, standardized online platform that will be provided to local governments at no cost, to “register” and automatically screen qualifying systems for local government authorities;

• A list of established equipment standards and/or certified equipment for solar and storage projects installed through the proposed process;

• The creation, or refinement, of system design standards for qualifying solar projects;

• A model instantaneous permitting regime for home and small-commercial solar and battery storage systems installed by certified installers and contractors;

• A program administrator to oversee and implement the plan, including providing technical assistance to state and local jurisdictions and utilities.

“An automated solar permitting process will reduce unnecessary costs and give Americans more freedom to choose how they meet their energy needs,” said Andrea Luecke, president and executive director at The Solar Foundation. “With this plan, we have a clear path forward to make solar installations even more affordable and widespread.”

The solar industry is working with stakeholders across the industry and government, seeking feedback on SolarAPP.

— Solar Builder magazine

Ampion and Lodestar Energy now offering community solar option to Eversource customers

solar option

Ampion and Lodestar Energy are now offering community solar subscriptions to all Eversource customers in Western Massachusetts. Each subscription will be to one of two 2.9 MW solar farms in Southwick. Ampion will manage the subscriptions while Lodestar will own and operate the facilities.

Community solar allows electric users to receive the benefits of solar without upfront investments or panel installations. As the solar farms deliver energy to the electric grid, subscribers receive credits that offset their electric bill. In addition to choosing an environmentally friendly power source, subscribers save money through the program, as each credit is sold at a 10% discount of their offset value.

“Once customers understand community solar, it becomes clear that it’s a win-win” said Chris Mills of Ampion, who organizes subscription campaigns for the program. “Southwick has limited capacity, but we’re hoping to reach as many people as we can for future projects. Everyone deserves the opportunity to choose a cleaner, more affordable power source.”

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“We’re excited to provide clean, local energy to Western Massachusetts. Add in the fact that we can supply that energy at a discount, to anyone who wants it, and we’re thrilled” said Jaime A. Smith, Co-Founder at Lodestar. “We’re transforming the grid’s infrastructure in a way that’s financially beneficial to its participants, all while addressing the need for sustainable power.”

Lodestar will continue to construct new community solar projects across Massachusetts, anticipating over fifty additional megawatts by 2020, for which Ampion will also provide management services. Currently, parties interested in the Southwick projects can enroll directly online at signup.lodestar.ampion.net.

— Solar Builder magazine

New York utilities seek demand charges in REV mass market rate design proposals

electric bill

New York is at an important juncture in its Reforming the Energy Vision (REV) development as a working group is currently assessing proposals for mass market rate design, two of which include demand charges. Considering the whole point of REV is to build toward a distributed future, this raised our eyebrows because demand charges are fundamentally at odds with that goal. So, what’s the deal here?

“This is different than the traditional rate case where a utility proposes X — this is a much more evolutionary process,” says Evan Dube, senior director of public policy at Sunrun. “But still disconcerting nonetheless because the joint utilities have shown their view of future mass market rate design revolves heavily around demand charges.”

Within the overall REV framework, there are numerous different working groups and proceedings going on. We are in Phase 1 right now, which moved much of the industry to the VDER value stack, with mass market rate design – residential and small commercial – still on net metering plan until Phase two, which starts Jan. 1, 2020. That seems far off, but in regulatory terms, the time is now.

RELATED: Our big takeaway from SEIA’s latest Grid Modernization report: Utilities need to step up

All stakeholders in the working group were encouraged to put forward proposals for review. From all of the proposals put forward, five were selected to drill down on and further analyze. These include a proposal from the solar industry and two from the JU – the two that have demand charges included.

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What are these demand charges?

Instead of electricity bills reflecting the total amount of electricity customers consume, demand charges add a fee based on a customer’s maximum electricity usage during each month, averaged over a short period of time. This is similar to going to a coffee shop for a medium coffee but being charged for a large because that’s the size you purchased the day before.

Here is some of the wording from the JU proposals right now referred to as the “2 Demand Rate” and the “TOU Demand Rate” proposals:

Both proposals recover delivery costs through demand (kW) charges and a monthly customer charge (a fixed amount each billing period), and supply costs through volumetric (kWh) charges. In both proposals, the demand charges replace volumetric delivery charges, which currently recover demand-related costs for delivery. The demand charges are calculated to recover the same level of costs as are currently recovered through the volumetric charges of the applicable rate class and are therefore designed to be revenue-neutral.

Here is the full PDF. These proposed demand charges are specifically for prospective DER customers, but the DPS and regulators in New York, in their overall mass market residential rate design, could look to adopt a structure along similar lines with what comes from this process for DER customers.

“I am not surprised that the JU took this direction,” Dube says. “We’ve seen this proposed by utilities a fair amount in the recent past – a majority of which have been rejected [up to 16 states where it’s been proposed and rejected by Sunrun’s count]. We in the renewables industry often reference back to the importance of continuity in the default rates, and the rates for which DER customers will be placed.”

What’s next?

The proposals are assessed by 1) the New York Department of Public Service (DPS), 2) the joint utilities (JU) and 3) a third-party consultant contracted by the DPS. The working group will keep meeting and go over various issues and culminate in a report from staff to the commission at the end of this year. The commission will then put forward an order at the start of 2019 to implement the next phase of rate design in 2020.

RELATED: Shadow costs: How outdated local processes stifle the true solar market

Because the utilities are also part of the group assessing proposals, two of which they submitted, the solar industry stakeholders have been stressing the need for transparency throughout the working group and going forward.
“The utilities possess a great deal of the data required to analyze these proposals, so ensuring there is adequate process and opportunity for industry stakeholders to respond and have access to the same data is important,” Dube says.

Again, just because these proposals exist (maybe as a negotiating tactic?) it doesn’t mean they are favored by the DPS staff or policy makers. Demand charges continue to be rejected in states around the country, most notably in Massachusetts last month, and New York’s execution on REV so far seems to indicate they won’t fly here either, but it is another example of utilities continuing to seek out regressive rate design.

— Solar Builder magazine

Arizona regulators reject new solar fixed charges requested by two utilities (but ends net metering)

rejected fixed charge

Out in Arizona, home of the demand charge, the Arizona Corporation Commission rejected a request by two utilities to subject new solar customers to large monthly fixed charges. As part of their recent rate cases, Tucson Electric Power Company (TEP) and UNS Electric sought a monthly Grid Access Charge and an inflated monthly Meter Fee. The Commission rejected the proposed Grid Access Charge after agreeing with Vote Solar, Earthjustice, and other solar advocates that the charge would over-recover costs from new solar customers. The Commission also rejected the utilities’ attempt to substantially increase the current Meter Fee and instead adopted Vote Solar’s recommendation for a modest Meter Fee increase.

In addition, the Commission eliminated net metering for new solar customers through the implementation of the Arizona Value of Solar decision that was issued in December 2016. As a result, new solar customers will no longer be compensated for the excess energy they export to the grid at retail rates.

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Instead, new solar customers will receive a reduced export compensation rate that is based on utility-scale solar prices.  Existing rooftop solar customers will be grandfathered on to net metering and their current rate design.

“Arizona’s families and businesses should be able to meet their own energy needs with the state’s plentiful sunshine if they so choose,” said Briana Kobor, regulatory director at Vote Solar. “Solar is an investment that supports local jobs, improves energy security and helps build a competitive new energy economy in the state. While today’s decision by the Commission is a missed opportunity for the state to lead, we commend the decision to avoid further penalizing solar customers with additional fees.”

“The utilities’ overly-aggressive proposals would have made rooftop solar uneconomic and halted its growth in southern Arizona,” Earthjustice attorney Michael Hiatt said. “Although today’s net metering decision will unnecessarily chill rooftop solar installations, the Commission’s rejection of excessive solar fixed charges is a win for Arizona families and small businesses who wish to generate their own clean energy.”

— Solar Builder magazine

Arizona utility launches program to install solar on customer houses at no cost

APS Arizona utility

Arizona utility APS has launched a new program, APS Solar Communities, to make renewable energy more accessible. Designed specifically for limited- and moderate-income customers, APS Solar Communities approved participants agree to have a rooftop solar system installed at no cost. Customers then begin receiving a monthly $30 bill credit from APS while contributing to the company’s 50 percent clean-energy portfolio. APS serves about 2.7 million people in 11 of Arizona’s 15 counties, and is the Southwest’s foremost producer of clean, safe and reliable electricity.

APS is collaborating with Arizona-based solar installers Arizona Solar Concepts, Discover Energy Solutions, Harmon Solar, Sunny Energy and Southface Solar on this program to put rooftop solar systems on qualifying customers’ residences. The systems will be maintained by APS – an approach modeled on the APS Solar Partner program and designed during the company’s 2016 rate review process. Participating single-family residential customers will receive $360 per year in monthly bill credits for 20 years, saving $7,200 per household during the life of the program.

RELATED: Shadow costs: How outdated local processes stifle the true solar market

“Our customers, community and economy, deserve innovative energy programs, and that’s exactly what Solar Communities delivers,” said Marc Romito, APS Director of Customer Technology. “With an investment of $10 million to $15 million per year for the next three years, we look forward to seeing some of our customers, who otherwise wouldn’t have access to solar, receive the benefits of renewable energy.”

Who qualifies?

The Solar Communities program will install solar systems on single-family houses with west- and southwest-facing roofs, which offer the greatest potential to generate energy during the late-afternoon and early-evening hours between 3 and 8 p.m. when customers use the most electricity.

“The solar panels installed under this program will be facing southwest and west to produce energy when customers need it most,” said Kent Walter, APS Manager of Customer Technology. “This program also will help us conduct research on integrating more renewable energy without compromising reliability. Solar Communities creates an option for more customers to go solar, while generating new projects for our local installation partners bringing positives on many levels.”

To qualify for APS Solar Communities, single-family households must be certified limited-income (at or below 200 percent of federal poverty level), or moderate-income (below 100 percent of median household income in Arizona). Other qualifying factors include roof size, orientation and structural integrity to accommodate a system. The size of residential systems will range from 4 to 8 kilowatts.

— Solar Builder magazine