Is SolarApp+ the key to speeding up home solar installations?
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The Solar Automated Permit Processing Plus, which we will refer to as SolarApp+ for the remainder of the article, is a tool that is designed to alleviate some of the issues with solar system permitting.
SolarApp+ launched at the beginning of Summer 2021, against the backdrop of huge solar news with a confirmed 3 million solar installations nationwide. SolarApp+ aims to keep this number growing.
Aside from installers, this is exciting news for homeowners who want solar installed quickly and efficiently - if you live in a jurisdiction that uses SolarApp+, you can be guaranteed to have a quicker project timeline.
We’ll walk you through all the ways towns, installers, and solar energy homeowners benefit from SolarApp+.
Despite the somewhat misleading name, SolarApp+ is not an app that you download onto your smartphone - it’s actually an online application portal for solar permitting. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), part of the U.S. Department of Energy, created the SolarApp+ to simplify the permitting process for residential solar system installations.
Before installing solar panels on your roof, you need to get permits approved by your town. This process varies between locations and is one of the most time-consuming steps of the solar installation project timeline.
These delays cause backlogs and add costs to solar installs, which can be up to a $1.00 per watt (or about $7,000) in permitting fees to the average solar system. While installers do handle the paperwork, it can be a headache for homeowners who want their systems up and running as soon as possible.
The biggest issue with solar permitting is the fact that each jurisdiction has a different process. The permitting process and costs are different from state to state and even town to town. This leaves it up to the solar installer to figure out the paperwork for every single town they install a solar system in.
Not only that - most of the time, local governments that issue the permits are a bit antiquated. They usually do not have a way to submit permits online, which further complicates (and slows down) the process.
Many larger towns with extra budgets have an online permitting system already, or have expanded them due to COVID-19. But the SolarApp+ can help smaller towns bring their permitting process online because it is free and ready to use.
SolarAPP+ streamlines the permitting process by standardizing requirements, and checking for code issues and typos on the spot.
It is estimated to cut down the permitting process by 5-10 business days. Since its launch, it has helped speed up the permitting process for 2,800 homes!
SolarAPP+ can accept and process permits independently to check for code compliance while also reviewing for issues within the application. This saves solar installers valuable time and working hours, allowing them to go from job to job more quickly.
SolarApp+ is available at no cost for solar market jurisdictions and is currently used by at least 125 local governments. Using it will cut their workload down, in addition to getting them their permit payments faster, making it a win-win-win for every party involved: the installer, the town, and the homeowner.
Installers cannot use the SolarApp+ unless the jurisdiction that they work with is using it. Installers can sign up and encourage the jurisdictions they work with to utilize the online tool. Installers will also receive email notifications when their local jurisdictions begin using the app.
After the initial setup, SolarApp+ claims that jurisdictions will not need to do any additional monitoring of the system. Meaning, it will automatically update to include new code revisions and new technology. In effect, SolarApp+ takes the permitting burden off of towns and installers, thereby making the whole process of going solar easier for homeowners.
It is important to note that SolarApp+ will collect a standard application fee from installers, similar to the fees that are already rolled into permitting costs. While this cost will be passed on to homeowners, it is not different than the fees homeowners are already expected to cover for a solar install.
Except, SolarApp+ might actually be cheaper because of the quicker access to a permit. Although we do not have an exact number for the fee, we can assume that it will be consistent from town to town due to the standardized nature of SolarApp+.
The inclusion of “App” in the name is a little confusing, it makes it seem like an app that is installed on your phone. But that is not the case - it lives in an online government portal.
There are other “solar apps” that homeowners can install on their Android or Apple iPhone, based on the solar panel manufacturer of their system. These monitoring apps connect to the inverter within your solar system and are meant to monitor system performance.
They can tell you things like what your panels’ energy production is like, if a solar panel is not working properly, and how much electricity your storage battery is absorbing.
The NREL SolarApp+ has nothing to do with your solar system after it is installed on your roof. It is built to make the installation process quicker and cheaper, not to monitor your solar system after it’s installed.
NREL has some lofty claims for the potential success of SolarAPP+. They claim it will lead to an increase of 2.4 million rooftop solar installations and 30,000 solar jobs, though they did not specify over what time period. And that really might be true, since SolarApp+ will make solar cheaper and permitting times quicker, leading to more people being able to afford solar power and enjoy its cost-saving benefits.
In fact, during the pilot program in Tucson, Arizona, SolarApp+ reduced the average permitting time for solar projects from 20 days to zero.
But as we enter 2022, the future of solar is on ever-increasingly thin ice. Net metering is being challenged in California, while federal incentives are not being expanded, as the Build Back Better plan remains on hold. We hope that easing solar permitting will lead to more (and cheaper) solar installations, but it is only one part of the puzzle.