New tools bring more jobs and local, clean energy to your town

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 Hey, New York Municipalities:

  A great opportunity is coming your way. It can help create jobs in   your community, cut your administrative costs, decrease your         town’s carbon footprint, and help homeowners slash their energy   bills. Not only that, this opportunity can help reduce the cost of       solar power, not just for individual homeowners but for the               industry and the state as a whole.

That opportunity is the just announced New York State Unified Solar Permitting Initiative. (The new permitting forms are on the New York-Sun Initiative website.) By adopting new, time-saving permitting forms and processes, New York State’s 1,600 or so villages, towns and cities can streamline the permitting process that enables proposed residential-scale solar installations to move forward. (Residential scale, in this case, means 12 kilowatts or fewer.)

The Problem: No two towns are alike

At present, the Empire State’s cities and towns, like those in almost every state in the union, offer a crazy quilt of permitting processes and forms. This lack of uniformity complicates what should be routine solar installations and can add $1000 or more to the average residential solar project.

Vermont is the only state in the union with a unified process and there the benefits are already apparent. The Green Mountain State doesn’t even require permits for systems under 10 kilowatts. Rather, it allows installers and/or homeowners to simply register these small systems, much as one would a car. As a result, solar installation costs are some of the lowest in the nation. “Vermont doesn’t have good solar incentives,” explains Andrew Savage, of AllEarth Renewables, which manufactures tracking systems that allow solar panels to turn with the sun. “But these low ‘soft’ costs have made our market strong.”

Back in the Empire State, some municipal permitting processes are relatively simple. Others require a mountain of paperwork. Timelines for approval can be long, despite the relative simplicity of the installation process. All this makes doing business harder for solar installers and more expensive for their customers.

The Solution: Permitting uniformity reduces costs 

As my colleague Nathanael Greene has written, reducing permitting costs and other non-hardware costs can help speed solar deployment here in the U.S. In fact, were our so-called balance of system costs similar to those of, say, Germany, in many states solar power would be cheaper than utility-supplied electricity.

New York’s new, easy-to-use, four-page form is modeled on one developed by the Long Island Power Authority, along with best practices outlined by the Solar America Board for Codes and Standards, which is funded by the U.S. Department of Energy. The form has been designed with input from a wide range of stakeholders, including the NRDC and a wide range of stakeholders from the national-level campaign, Project Permit.

Among the form’s many attributes are a straightforward checklist that lets users know whether their projects are eligible, and a simple process for listing a system’s technical specifications. The Initiative recommends only a $150 fee for application processing and requires municipalities to issue determinations within 14 days of submission; if there’s a problem with an application, the municipality must provide feedback within a week. Similarly, the process requires only a single inspection—multiple inspections are now common in many areas. Cities, towns and villages that adopt the form can receive a financial incentive from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority.

“The goal is making life easier for municipalities, for installers, with the result of lowering costs for the end-use consumer,” explained Jennifer Harvey, of the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, during a recent webinar with interested municipalities.

That’s an important innovation New Yorkers can be proud of. Driving down permitting costs is one of the keys to expanding solar deployment in the U.S. With it comes diminished global warming, cleaner air for our kids to breathe, energy independence and security, and a growing number of jobs for Americans who need them.

New York municipalities: The time to sign up is now.