How Jurisdictions Can Reduce Permitting Costs Through Software Automation

Sustainability and Green Building

In an effort to increase deployment of renewable energy technologies, the Department of Energy (DOE) and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) recently rolled out a new solar photovoltaics (PV) permitting tool.

The Solar Automated Permit Processing (SolarAPP+) tool helps streamline the permit application process and makes it easier for local governments to issue permits for solar PV.

The end goal: instantly approve permits that comply with building codes and other solar-related specifications.

Four jurisdictions in Arizona and California piloted a beta version of the application in 2020 and were able to save 186.4 hours in permit review time and permit revision review time. The pilot program significantly reduced solar installation timelines when compared to traditional permitting processes.

In Tucson, the program reduced review timelines from an average of 20 business days to 0 days (same day approval). Because the tool was developed through public funding, the application is available to jurisdictions for free. It is compatible with local government permitting software such as Accela and OpenGov. SolarAPP+ works by calculating whether a proposed solar PV system complies with local codes and a suite of safety standards, and even catches typos from user inputs.

The program currently checks systems against the 2017 National Electric Code and the 2018 I-Codes, with the latest codes to be incorporated soon. This allows local governments to save time with permit plan reviews, increasing efficiencies and reducing costs for the local community, solar installers and other involved stakeholders.

With a shorter overall permitting timeline and less red tape, local jurisdictions might want to consider exploring SolarAPP+ to incentivize residential solar PV, paired with additional financial incentives at the local, state or utility level. Implementing incremental steps toward online permitting can also help to reduce costs and permitting delays. For example, San Jose, Calif., switched to online permitting in 2016 and was able to increase the number of solar PV permits processed by 600%.

As housing affordability issues continue well into this year, taking a few lessons learned from the solar industry to streamline permitting processes could help lower costs from various aspects of unavoidable regulation — which now account for close to 24% of the final price of a new single-family home built for sale, according to a recent NAHB survey.

The study determined that the financial impact because of delays (if regulation imposed no other cost) can range from $941 during development to $1,442 during the construction phase on average across all homes. Other elements of the SolarAPP+ — such as inspection checklist verifications, integration with pre-existing local government permitting software, or automated project tracking — could also be applicable to help the building sector reduce costs incurred from permit-related delays.

To stay current on the high-performance residential building sector, with tips on water efficiency, energy efficiency, indoor air quality, and other building science strategies, follow NAHB’s Sustainability and Green Building efforts on Twitter.

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