Region Forward Blog

DC Area Governments Work to Green Tape Solar Power

Feb 11, 2015

Solar energy is booming. Just last month, national news outlets ran headlines proclaiming incredible job growth in the solar industry, dropping installation prices, and improved resale value for homes with solar.

The DC area solar market is also growing fast the amount of net-metered solar installed more than doubled between 2012 and 2013, according to the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments’ (COG) annual utility survey but the region could be reaping more economic benefits from this promising technology. The District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia each still get less than 1 percent of their electricity from solar power, and solar companies are eager to do more work in the region.

One reason the solar industry has identified for the small solar share is variation in local guidelines, especially permitting and zoning regulations. While the price of solar panels has dropped precipitously in recent years, the non-hardware costs, or œsoft costs,  remain quite high. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) estimates that soft costs now account for 64 percent of the total cost of going solar. In a 2011 study, SunRun found that on average, the permitting and inspections process adds over $2,500 to the cost of a residential solar system. Variation in building code requirements across jurisdictions added about $730.

Local governments in the metropolitan Washington region took an important step toward fixing this problem. COG’s Climate, Energy and Environment Policy Committee (CEEPC) voted unanimously to support a set of regional recommendations for solar permitting that combine national best practices with regional preferences, with flexibility to be modified for local needs. In the words of CEEPC Chair Roger Berliner, the guidelines will reduce red tape and help to œgreen tape -or accelerate-the process of going solar for DC-area residents.

The recommendations build on previous work by COG to encourage best practices and regional consistency in sustainability initiatives. COG’s 2007 Greening the Metropolitan Washington Region’s Built Environment report laid out several recommendations for green buildings, and a Regional Green Building Standard  for new construction. COG’s 2010 and 2013 Climate and Energy Action Plans set out over 50 recommended actions local governments should take many of which are being implemented to help reach our region’s greenhouse gas reduction goals

The new regional solar permitting recommendations include simple measures like adopting a permit checklist, which will help ensure permit applications are submitted correctly the first time, and an inspection checklist, which will help ensure systems are installed correctly and pass inspection on the first attempt. Checklist templates are also included for ease of use by local permitting departments.

More involved but higher-reward measures include recommendations to adopt an expedited, or œfast-track,  permit process for standard residential solar photovoltaic (PV) installations. Most residential solar installations already follow a standard design and do not require the customization or individual assessments that commercial systems do. Localities can choose what criteria qualify a system for fast tracking (by demonstrating it is a typical, well-engineered system), and can simplify the structural and electrical review for these systems to minimize unnecessary work and reduce delay. There are models the National Capital Region can follow. For example, in September 2014, California passed a law requiring Counties statewide to adopt an expedited solar permit process.

The recommendations were jointly developed by COG and MDV-SEIA, the solar energy industry association chapter representing Maryland, the District and Virginia, to help move the region forward on its renewable energy goals. COG is participating in the U.S. Department of Energy SunShot Initiative Rooftop Solar Challenge II, which helps local governments reduce the cost of going solar in their communities, through measures like streamlining local permitting processes.

The region is already making good progress toward reducing solar permitting cost and delay. In October 2014, the District of Columbia implemented new permitting guidelines for solar PV and solar thermal systems, which reduced permit fees, simplified the adjoining property notification process, allowed for electronic instead of œwet  engineering stamps and established a comprehensive online permit checklist. Montgomery County is currently working to adopt an expedited permit for qualified solar systems, and will reduce fees approximately 50 percent in response to a County law passed in April 2014. Having regional guidelines will help to ensure that this progress continues and expands around the region, even after the Rooftop Solar Challenge program ends in 2015.

Toward that end, COG is now collaborating with local jurisdictions and regional entities including the Maryland Energy Administration (MEA) and Northern Virginia Regional Commission (NVRC) to implement the permitting recommendations. The benefits of permit streamlining are especially high for communities that must process a large volume of solar permit applications and those looking to move the permit process online.

You can learn more about COG’s work under the Rooftop Solar Challenge here, view participating jurisdictions’ Solar Roadmaps here, or contact Jeff King at jking@mwcog.org.

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