Residential solar installation in Oregon – Credit: John Powell
2013 was a record-breaking year for solar power in the United States. In fact, solar power was the second leading source of new electricity in the U.S. behind the more established energy source – natural gas. The biggest reason for the surge in solar installations is the rather dramatic drop in the price of panels. In fact, the average price of a solar panel has declined by 60 percent since the beginning of 2011. Despite this drop in the price of panels, solar energy remains a pricey proposition. The U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Sunshot Initiative is providing funding for projects aimed at reducing “soft costs” to make solar photovoltaic (PV) systems more affordable and cost competitive with other sources of electricity.
According to an October 2013 study by the National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL), soft costs now account for 64 percent of the price of installed residential PV systems. Soft costs include such items as customer financing, system design fees, installer overhead, and the costs and fees associated with installation, such as labor, grid interconnection, inspections, and permitting. Permitting is considered the low-hanging fruit for reducing soft costs.
In an effort to better understand the solar permitting process in Oregon and to improve the information available to installers, the Energy Trust of Oregon (ETO), with funding from U.S. Department of Energy, developed an electronic survey asking local building departments questions about:
• Submittal requirements
• Electronic permitting
ETO sent the survey to 103 Oregon building departments (see map of ETO service territory) during August 2013 and more than half completed the survey. Data gathered from the survey is now posted in the national solar permitting database. In addition, ETO shared the aggregated results of the survey at a recent webinar, Easier Permitting for Solar in Oregon. The aggregated survey results offered an interesting glimpse into how well the 2010 Oregon Solar Installation Specialty Code (OSISC), specifically the prescriptive path, is working to streamline the permitting of solar installations around the state.
When the OSISC was developed, it was assumed that installers of small projects would use the prescriptive structural path (see section 105.2 and 305.4 of the OSISC). The prescriptive path requires installers to follow manufacturer’s installation instructions and submit all of the following for a permit:
• Completed solar checklist
• Simple site plan showing fire fighter access
• Simple structural plan showing the roof framing
• Required permit fees
For those jurisdictions with full-service ePermitting, the installer completes the solar checklist online, scans in the site and structural plan, and has the permit issued electronically. The local building department then follows up with an electrical and structural inspection to ensure a safe installation (see section 108 and 303.1 of the OSISC).
The survey results revealed a little different picture than the prescriptive path outlined above. Building Codes Division (BCD) was pleased to learn that 77 percent of responding building departments charged a flat fee for prescriptive path projects and 67 percent had same-day permitting. However, the survey showed that a significant percentage of local building departments surveyed require additional documentation for prescriptive path projects such as:
• Mounting details – 84 percent
• Elevation drawings – 42 percent
• Electrical diagram – 23 percent
• Engineer’s wet stamp for mounting details – 13 percent
Although Oregon has a more uniform solar permitting process than any other state, there are still plenty of opportunities to streamline the solar projects. BCD wants to hear ideas for improving permitting especially for prescriptive path installations.
Send your comments and suggestions to Gabrielle Schiffer, BCD’s green building coordinator, at Gabrielle.M.Schiffer@state.or.us or at 503-373-7418.
For a copy of ETO’s presentation, Easier Permitting for Solar in Oregon, contact Lizzie Rubado, at Lizzie.Rubado@energytrust.org or at 503-546-3614.
For more detailed information on soft costs check out the article, ‘Soft Costs’ Ring Up Big Tab in PV Installations at GreenBuildingAdvisor.com.