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SolarApp+: fast tracking solar across the United States

In July 2021, the Department of Energy (DOE) kicked off the Summer of Solar 2021–a national campaign aimed at progressing the Biden Administration’s goal of achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2050 through the expansion of solar energy. While the cost of solar has continued to decrease each year in the US, delays in the solar permitting process have made it difficult for the US to achieve costs as low as some other countries, such as Australia. To kick off the Summer of Solar, the DOE launched a tool to help expedite this process: the Solar Automated Permit Processing Plus (SolarApp+).

Key takeaways

  1. SolarApp+ is a free, web-based platform aimed at expediting the solar permitting process and lowering the cost of solar in the US

  2. SolarApp+ was recently rebranded from SolarApp to include storage systems, which is in the piloting phase–the app is currently only publicly available for residential rooftop solar systems

  3. The app could significantly lower the cost of solar if widely adopted, making it more accessible to more people

  4. SolarApp+ will likely decrease–already rare–solar system failures by reducing the risk of human error during inspection

  5. Visit the EnergySage Marketplace to start your solar journey today

The background of SolarApp+

If you want to install a solar system, you’ll first need to obtain permits from your local government to ensure that your property meets the necessary safety requirements for the electrical and construction work. Typically, you can expect your installer to have to file for an electrical permit, a structural or building permit, and/or a dedicated solar photovoltaic (PV) permit. The SolarApp pilot program was originally released in 2020 to standardize and automate the solar permitting processing to make it more efficient and cost-effective. After success with the pilot program, the DOE officially launched the app in July 2021 and rebranded to SolarApp+ to include energy storage as well–though storage is still in the piloting phase and is not yet publicly available.

What is SolarApp+ and how does it work?

In the words of the DOE, SolarApp+ is “a free web-based platform that gives local governments the ability to expedite their review and approval of residential solar installation permits.” The app was developed by the DOE’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in conjunction with numerous industry stakeholders, and all specifications were approved by the international Code Council, International Association of Electrical Inspectors, and Underwriters Laboratories.

Local governments have the opportunity to adopt and implement SolarApp+–according to the DOE, it takes only 10 to 15 minutes for them to get involved. They can then invite installers in their jurisdiction to join the platform. Installers can also set up accounts in SolarApp+ and use that account to apply for permits in any jurisdictions that use the platform. To apply for a permit, an installer will submit an application with design specifications through SolarApp+. The app will then check the application to make sure the system design is compliant with applicable codes. Finally, the installer will pay a small fee–about $25–and the permit will be issued instantly as long as the application is code-compliant.

What are the benefits of SolarApp+?

Once you decide to install a solar system, you want it on your roof and powering your home immediately–so if you experience delays during the permitting process, it can be quite frustrating and can postpone your solar savings! In fact, the DOE estimates that delays in permitting have cost homeowners up to $16 million in wasted energy. Not only will SolarApp+ expedite this process and allow you to save money by going solar quicker, but also likely drive down the cost of solar altogether.

Soft costs, including permitting, account for a substantial portion of solar costs and are the major reason why solar costs more in the US than in regions like Australia and Europe where permitting is more standardized. NREL estimates that if automated permitting and interconnection processes are widely adopted, you could eventually see savings up to $1 per Watt, or about $7,000 for an average residential solar installation! For example, on the EnergySage Marketplace, the average cost of solar is $2.76 per Watt, which equates to $19,320 for a 7 kilowatt (kW) system before incentives. With a cost-per-Watt reduction of $1, this system would only cost $12,320 before incentives: exactly $7,000 in savings!

With this decreased cost, solar can become more accessible to everyone, including lower income families and communities. The DOE predicts that it will also impact the broader market by opening up more jobs for tradespeople (e.g. installers, electricians, and roofers), which will ultimately inject more money into local communities.

What projects can use SolarApp+?

Currently, SolarApp+ is limited to residential rooftop installations performed by licensed contractors. This means that if you’re looking to install a ground-mounted system, a solar-integrated roof, or a DIY solar project, you’ll still have to go through the traditional permitting process right now even if you live in a jurisdiction that uses SolarApp+.

As we previously mentioned, SolarApp+ is currently undergoing a pilot study with storage as well, so it will likely soon be available for solar-plus-storage installations. In the future, the SolarApp+ team hopes that the permitting process can include solar, storage, and electric vehicle (EV) chargers, so everything can be rolled into one inspection and one permit for easy and quick installation. They also hope to expand the app to solar thermal permits, reroofing permits, and solar-integrated roofs. 

Does expedited permitting increase errors?

It’s a good question! In some areas with expedited permitting, such as Australia, the lack of regulatory oversight has allowed for installation of some sub-standard solar systems. However, the SolarApp pilot program found that inspection results actually improved and that the system failure rate was very low. The app creates a simple checklist and conducts all calculations in-platform, which ultimately reduces human error and deviation from requirements. Thus far, the app has not expedited the inspection process, but as installers become more familiar with the experience, this is likely to occur as well.

Start your solar journey today on EnergySage

Looking to install a solar system on your home? On the EnergySage Marketplace, you’ll receive custom quotes from up to seven pre-vetted installers so you can find the right system that meets your needs. Between our team of expert Energy Advisors and our network of installers, we’ll be able to answer any questions you may have about the solar or solar-plus-storage permitting process. And if you’d like to see SolarApp+ adopted in your jurisdiction, be sure to reach out to your local officials and let them know!

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