A California bill that will bring super-fast permitting to millions more homeowners has passed a key committee hurdle, paving the way for same-day approval of home solar energy installations. The Solar Access Act (SB 617), submitted by Senator Scott Wiener (D–San Francisco), implements mandatory automated solar permitting in counties with a population of 150,000 or more.
The leap in efficiency is possible because up to 90% of system plans are now covered by reviewing software created in a collaboration among building code officials, the Department of Energy, and the solar industry. SolarAPP+ is the name of a new service that integrates into the software of existing local governments and provides standardized plan review and permitting. Developed by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), part of the U.S. Department of Energy, the service automates plan review, permit approval, and project tracking. It is free to use.
"California needs to dramatically expand its solar energy and energy storage capacity," Senator Wiener said. "Automated solar permitting helps us streamline the approval process and increases our renewable energy output. If we're serious about meeting California's climate goals, we need much more solar and need to deploy it much more quickly."
The NREL debuted SolarAPP+ in 2020 and has been steadily bolstering its capabilities. Los Angeles, Pleasant Hill, Sonoma County, and San Jose are among the jurisdictions that have started automated permitting with great success. Pleasant Hill has reduced its average permit review time to zero days (same-day approval) since adopting SolarAPP+ for instantaneous automated permitting.
Targeting the "Soft Costs" to Drive Solar Adoption
Solar financing and other nonhardware costs, often referred to as "soft costs," now comprise up to 64% of the total price of residential solar energy systems, according to two detailed reports by the NREL.¹ The laboratory noted that soft costs are becoming an increasingly larger fraction of the cost of installing solar. Permitting and inspection fees range nationally from $0 to over $2,500.
In addition to application fees, another significant barrier can be permit approval times. Waiting times have improved dramatically in recent years. In 2013, Americans waited an average of 126 days to get a solar permit approved and panels installed.² Today the usual waiting time for approval is a week or two—unless some information is missing or unclear and the process has to start over.
A long wait time from application to installation can be discouraging to even the most ardent clean energy supporter. To streamline the process, SolarAPP+ standardizes requirements and checks for safety and compliance on the spot to instantly catch code issues, typos, and errors. The Solar Access Act will make the use of this free-to-use service or a similar process mandatory in counties with more than 150,000 people.
"When regulations make it unnecessarily difficult for people to quickly install solar and storage systems, it hurts everyone," Senator Wiener said. "We need to make it easier for people to use renewable energy—that's just a no-brainer. Expediting solar permitting is something we can do to make this a reality.”
Valerie Anderson, who works in permits and inspections at Tesla, said, "SolarAPP will help accelerate the U.S.'s transition to sustainable energy, and that's all that matters to me. It's a win-win! Customers get a faster, cheaper process to go solar, and building officials get the star power of all the great experts and code officials behind an automated tool that gives them consistent checks for free."
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