Vote Solar's new Project Permit gives you a way to make solar cheaper

German homeowners who want to install solar on their roofs pay about half the price Americans do: $3 a watt, compared to $6 a watt here. That’s the difference between wide-scale renewable energy deployment—solar supplies as much as 10 percent of all German electricity—and the niche but growing market here in the U.S., where solar provided a scant 0.11% of our electricity in 2012. Project Permit, an effort launched today by our friends at Vote Solar, aims to help communities reduce that gap and the cost of solar here in the U.S., thereby speeding the solar deployment we need to cut carbon pollution and clean up the air our kids breathe.

Turns out, the cost of the hardware isn’t the reason prices are lower in Germany. Solar panels, inverters and the like cost about the same in both countries. Instead, the so-called soft costs—costs such as costumer acquisition, project installation time, sales tax, and permitting—make all the difference. Were U.S. solar soft costs equal to Germany’s, consumers could buy solar at less than the retail utility price in many states.

Permitting, in particular, can jack up solar’s costs, adding as much as $1,000 or more per home. Permitting complications can mean that what should be a less than one-day approval process can get strung out over weeks, costing solar contractors and their customers big bucks.

Thanks to Vote Solar and the Beta version of their new Project Permit website, you can help lower these costs and simplify the permitting process. Explains Vote Solar’s Solar Policy Director Annie C. Lappé: “With Project Permit, our goal is to empower citizens in reducing the cost of solar and making it a mainstream energy source.”


PROJECT PERMIT: Best Practices in Solar Permitting from Vote Solar on Vimeo.

In fact, improved permitting policies—policies that follow nine best practices devised by Vote Solar and the Interstate Renewable Energy Council—can cut the cost of residential solar permitting by 60 percent or more—as much as $600 per home!

Using the Project Permit website, it’s pretty easy to become a change agent. First, type into the website’s search engine the name of your city, town or county to discover how it ranks in terms of permitting best practices. The beta version lists about 800 municipalities. But in the final version, Vote Solar hopes to include as many as 3000. (You can increase that number, too. If your town’s not listed, click on the link that allows you to add details you cull by calling your local Buildings department.) 

If your municipality isn’t a solar permitting champion—and most aren’t—you can take advantage of these online resources: a sample letter to your local mayor supporting solar permitting best practices; best practice guidelines; and a sample ordinance that would put these best practices in place. Then, to get the ball rolling, just personalize these tools, and send them off to whoever is in charge of local building permits—your mayor or county commissioner. Announcing your actions on your favorite social media sites can help you enlist more people in the cause, as can good old-fashioned talking to folks and encouraging them to participate.

Should you and your friends get an expression of interest from your local elected official, Project Permit can hook your town up with two organizations that can help it develop top-flight permitting practices—the Department of Energy-funded Solar Roadmap and ICLEI/Local Governments for Sustainability USA.

With the huge drop in solar hardware prices in recent years, often what’s standing in the way of large-scale solar deployment are simple problems like permitting ordinances. These rules are often controlled at the local level, where small groups of empowered citizens can make big changes. “Depending on where you live,” explains Lappé, “up to two-thirds of the cost of going solar is soft costs.” Permitting “can be streamlined,” she says, “just by political will.”

So start exercising some political muscle. First step: Click here.

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