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

SEIA, HBCU Coalition launch effort to increase diversity in solar industry

SEIA

With a goal of making the solar workforce and solar communities more diverse, the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) and the Historically Black Colleges and Universities Community Development Action Coalition (HBCU-CDAC) have begun a new effort to increase recruitment of African-American students into the industry.

SEIA and the HBCU-CDAC, have signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to begin a comprehensive effort to help the solar industry recruit and employ more students from the nation’s 101 Historically Black Colleges and Universities. This will include hosting a national jobs fair, individual jobs fairs at the HBCU schools and bringing solar companies to campuses for recruitment.

“Diversity and inclusion is one of our highest priorities and, while we’ve made progress, we still have a long way to go to make the solar industry more accurately reflect the diversity of the communities we serve,” said Abigail Ross Hopper, SEIA’s president and CEO. “Those of us in solar joined this industry because we want to make the world better for all, which is why we’re excited to partner with CDAC, tap into the talent at HBCUs, and bring more of these students into our growing industry.”

RELATED: Study shows where solar industry diversity falls short

As an outcome of the partnership, SEIA and CDAC will work with participating HBCUs to create a database of students pursuing clean energy degrees, or those interested in working in solar, that will be accessible by SEIA companies. Both organizations will work with campus representatives to foster resume exchanges and coordinate interviews among participating companies.

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“As a national community economic development intermediary offering programs and activities that target HBCUs and their host communities, we are delighted to partner with SEIA in exposing HBCU students as well as their faculty and staff to opportunities in solar and clean energy,” said Ron Butler, CDAC’s CEO. “With an ultimate goal of community empowerment and economic relevancy, we see diversity and inclusion in this growing industry from all aspects including workforce and enterprise development.”

CDAC’s COO Henry Golatt commented that “clean energy both now and in the foreseeable future is integral to our national economy and security. CDAC’s goal in this regard is to ensure HBCUs are not only at the table but adequately engaged.”

The new recruitment effort is one of SEIA’s many efforts to foster diversity and inclusion. This includes a best practices guide for promoting diversity in the solar workforce, as well as its Women’s Empowerment Initiative, which provides networking, training and other development opportunities. In November, SEIA is hosting its latest summit, in Chicago, to discuss how to increase women’s leadership in the industry.

In addition, Hopper recently joined a group of 450 chief executives committed to advancing diversity and inclusion in the workplace, signing the pledge for CEO Action for Diversity & Inclusion. The pledge contains three commitments: making the organization’s workplace a trusting place to have complex conversations around diversity and inclusion, implementing unconscious bias education, and sharing best practices and challenges with others.

SEIA’s work on diversity will continue at the industry’s biggest event of the year, Solar Power International (Sept. 24-26). There, the organization is convening 10 separate workshops to encourage diversity, including conversations to bring more capital into underserved communities, how to make solar more accessible to low-income and low-credit Americans, along with sessions focusing on community outreach, multiple women’s networking events and a job fair. Head here for the complete schedule and register for the conference.

— Solar Builder magazine

Leading U.S. roofing contractor joins SEIA board of directors

Petersen Dean

The Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), the national trade association for the U.S. solar energy industry, announced today that PetersenDean, a leading U.S. roofing and solar power contractor, has joined SEIA’s board of directors. Gary Liardon, President of Consumer Group Nationwide at PetersenDean, will serve as a director.

Based in Fremont, Calif., PetersenDean is the largest, full-service, privately-held roofing and solar company in the United States, offering professional roofing and solar installation services nationwide for more than 30 years.

“We are thrilled to have the leadership of PetersenDean on our board of directors,” said Abigail Ross Hopper, president and CEO of the Solar Energy Industries Association. “The solar industry continues to grow amid in-tensifying competition, and PetersenDean’s guidance on our board will be critical as solar power becomes the single largest source of new electric generating capacity over the next decade.”

RELATED: PetersenDean Roofing and Solar signs solar panel supply contract with Silfab Solar

PetersenDean has been a member of SEIA since 2008, playing a key role in guiding the solar industry through a number of federal and state policy battles in the last decade.

“We are excited to take a more active role with SEIA,” said Gary Liardon. “At this critical juncture in the evolu-tion of the space, we recognize the duty to adopt a hands-on approach that will bring decades of experience to the table and help shape policy that will ensure thoughtful and responsible growth going forward. “

Today, the U.S. solar industry employs more than 250,000 Americans between 9,000 companies nationwide. There are more than 55 gigawatts of solar capacity installed in the U.S., and with roughly 1.75 million solar energy systems installed across the country, we are well on our way to 2 million installations by the end of 2018.

— Solar Builder magazine

Massachusetts bill passes to stop Eversource demand charge but doesn’t address net metering

massachusetts solar storage goals

Not sure how many more times I can use this photo.

Massachusetts lawmakers passed An Act to Advance Clean Energy yesterday that will pretty much do what it says, with one really important victory for the solar industry, and one potential setback. The victory was a call for Eversource to revise the demand charge it tried to impose (this was the main focus of the legislation heading in).

“Thank you to lawmakers in the House and Senate for acting to reject anti-consumer demand charges and ensuring homeowners and residents can continue to invest in solar energy,” stated Evan Dube, a Senior Policy Director with Sunrun and spokesperson for The Alliance for Solar Choice. “Massachusetts has become the latest state to stop mandatory punitive demand charges, which have been rejected virtually every time proposed across the country. State policy-makers showed tremendous leadership to maintain fair, commonsense billing methods that are good for consumers and support the growth of solar in the state.”

Notably absent from the revise legislation was anything about raising the state’s net metering cap. This concerns a bunch of solar advocates in the state because it has been nearly two years since the net metering cap for private and community shared projects in National Grid’s service territory was hit, and now caps have been hit in two other utility service areas slamming the brakes on hun-dreds of solar projects in 230 cities and towns.

RELATED: The end of net metering? Report sums up movement to new solar compensation plans

Adding to this issue is the uncertainty around the start and details of the state’s new incentive program – the Solar Massachusetts Renewable Target (SMART) Program, which will now be the only driver of market growth for the solar industry, leaving some municipal and business cus-tomers that want to put solar on their own roof, unable to do it in much of the Commonwealth.

“While it helpfully clarifies the structure for new charges for solar customers, there remains uncertainty in the Commonwealth’s solar market due to caps on net metering that have been hit,” said NECEC Execu-tive Vice President Janet Gail Besser. “Overall this legislation is a positive step forward and will spark more growth in the clean energy economy Massachusetts has built over the last decade.”

A quick summation of all the clean energy policies in the act:

  • Renewable Portfolio Standard – Raises the RPS by increasing the annual RPS growth rate to 2% until 2029 and then to 1% thereafter, increasing the requirements from 25% to 35% in 2030 and from 35% to 45% in 2040.
  • Solar – Addresses the unfair and inefficient mandatory residential demand charge approved in Ever-source’s recent rate case.
  • Energy Storage – Establishes a stronger 1,000 MWh deployment target for utility, third-party and customer owned systems in 2025.
  • Modernize the Grid – Requires utilities to file annual resiliency reports with the DPU and hold competitive solicitations for non-wires alternatives from third party developers as a solution for reducing green-house gas emissions, replacing aging infrastructure, benefitting stressed, congested or severe weather-prone areas of the electric grid.
  • Buildings – Promotes energy efficiency by enabling more technologies to qualify within the Mass Save efficiency programs.
  • Offshore Wind — Allows DOER, after studying the needs, benefits and costs, to conduct additional offshore wind procurements of up to 1,600 more megawatts by 2035.

— Solar Builder magazine

How a transparent, modern grid properly values solar, DER

grid modernization with solar

Much of our Attack the Tariff campaign is focused on market-based innovations that improve the upfront costs and long-term value for a variety of solar projects. But state-based solutions and local movements often make the biggest impact. In a series of white papers this year, the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) made a solid case for how regulators and utilities could lay the ground work for a more modern-day grid that takes better advantage of distributed energy resources.

“When states develop fair compensation mechanisms for distributed energy resources (DER), the result is a modern electric grid that better serves the needs of all its customers,” said Sean Gallagher, SEIA’s vice president of state affairs. “The case studies highlighted in our report can serve as a model for other states interested in grid modernization and the economic benefits that result.”

We recommend reading the whole thing. Our big takeaway is just how imperative it is for utilities to be more transparent with their data, forecasts and calculations. We need to get more voices in the room to offer solutions. What locations in an area need which specific upgrades? For what time of year? For what time of day?

Transparency

We all already know utility transparency is an issue, but when the possibilities for grid modernization are laid out as SEIA has done in this series, the lack of transparency seems more inexcusable than ever.

Our favorite concept from the report came in part four, Getting More Granular: How Value of Location and Time May Change Compensation for Distributed Energy Resources.

Locational value can be used to guide resources to high value locations. Utilities can create, and should publish maps showing the specific locations of any needs on the distribution system, the specific grid constraints to avoid the need (e.g., high loads during hot late summer afternoons), and the value of the avoidance in terms of dollars per amount of capacity. If a developer knows in advance that there will be a utility solicitation for the identified needs, it can begin seeking customers or project sites in anticipation of the opportunity to bid in its projects.

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The report continues in that section to lay out a basis for compensation:

In addition to competitive utility solicitations, there are alternative means of providing targeted tariffs, programs or incentives to drive DER to locations to meet identified needs. If identified needs are too small or have too short of a lead time to be met through a competitive solicitation, the utility could have a tariff- or program-based mechanism that can step in on short notice.

For example, voltage issues are often very isolated and managed with small utility investments. However, smart inverters are increasingly being deployed widely and can be used to provide voltage management services in the locations where a utility has challenges managing voltage within an acceptable range.

In addition, tariffs enable customers of all stripes to adopt solar and other DER, which delivers the generalized grid benefits we discuss, but also ensures that a state’s clean energy market grows equitably in a manner that distributes the social, environmental, and economic benefits to all ratepayers. This is an emerging topic and it is expected that California’s Integrated Distributed Energy Resources proceeding will explore non-solicitation based sourcing mechanisms.

So, there needs to be more transparency for developers and engineers to jump in and propose solutions, but there also needs to be more general transparency for the public to better understand how electricity gets to their house, what exactly it costs, and what alternatives could look like. Each small decision is super complicated, but zooming back out and considering the broad strokes from the point of view of an actual home owner would be revealing.

Changing incentives

In part five, which considers DER and non-wires solutions, SEIA makes the case that enhanced distribution system planning should incorporate the following key features:

• DER growth scenarios to inform grid planners where organic DER growth can be expected and where incremental DER deployment is needed.
• Hosting capacity analyses to determine DER hosting capacity limits on the distribution system to inform grid planners where additional investments may be needed to enable higher penetrations of DER.
• A methodology for fully valuing distributed energy resources to ensure proper price signals
• A transparent evaluation process by which NWS can be measured against traditional utility investments to determine the best investment for ratepayers.

Distribution utilities often make money on the construction of substations and other major capital projects. By avoiding those expenditures with solar or other DER, utilities would lose revenue opportunities, which is obviously a disincentive. This is why in California and New York, both states leading the way into a new era of transparency and collaboration, regulators have created compensation mechanisms to remove this potential bias.

This approach has allowed Southern California Edison to acquire about 260 MW of location-specific DER, 50 MW of which is distributed solar. In New York, the Public Service Commission agreed to defer the construction of a $1.5 billion substation, instead having Con Ed meet the forecasted load with 17 MW of customer-sided solutions and 52 MW of non-traditional utility-sided solutions by mid-2018. The overall budget here was only $200 million, of which only about $69 million was spent. The remaining money will be used to defer additional investments.

Bottom line, this series illustrates that if you started the grid from scratch in 2018, knowing what we know, and with the technology we have, there is just no way you’d arrive at the current arrangement and business model. Having utilities prioritize DER with the same long-term, capital intensive strategizing that they current apply, could be the most impactful U.S. innovation this century.

— Solar Builder magazine