U.S. Department of Energy Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy

Ask an Expert

July 03, 2013
Q.

Are there are any "universal" lessons around Balance of System costs that the SunShot program has recognized, and that local jurisdictions can take to heart? -Craig

SunShot Solar Outreach Partnership

The SunShot Solar Outreach Partnership has been tasked with helping accelerate adoption of photovoltaic (PV) solar at the local level by providing timely and actionable information to local governments.

A.

As you may know, balance of system costs generally refer to all the costs associated with installing and maintaining a solar system, except for photovoltaic (PV) module costs.  These up-front, non- hardware costs, or “soft” costs, can constitute a significant amount of total solar installation costs – up to 47% of the cost in some residential cases.

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) SunShot Initiative supports programs to lower these soft costs, as an overall effort to increase solar integration in the nation. The SunShot Initiative provides additional soft cost analysis and resources here. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) provides a more graphic breakdown of how soft costs can contribute to a total photovoltaic system cost. The National Association of Regional Councils, supported by DOE funding under the SunShot Initiative, also provides a collection of key soft cost categories that local governments can take steps to address.

Although there is no single lesson to be learned about the soft costs of solar installations, there are a number of best practices regarding solar permitting that local jurisdictions can utilize in their own communities. For example, local governments can incorporate fair flat permitting fees, as opposed to value-based method, which streamlines the permit process and ensures larger solar energy systems are no arbitrarily penalized, and electronic or over-the-counter permit issuance, which also expedites the process by ensuring permit applications are complete and error-free. The Interstate Renewable Energy Council (IREC) provides some other helpful solar permitting best practices and case studies for local government to consider adopting.

Other best practices at the local level include standardized permit requirements, providing electronic materials to help solar installers easily prepare for permit submission, training solar permitting staff so they can quickly process applications, removing excessive reviews, reducing inspection appointment windows thereby reducing the number of billable hours solar installers have to wait at a job site, and, if required, replacing community-specific solar licenses with standard, national and international certifications for installers. To learn more about important technical requirements that should be addressed in the permitting process, look at “Solar ABCs” from the American Board of Codes and Standards.

Should you like to learn more about Balance of Systems non-hardware (soft) costs, or other solar best practices, please explore the Solar Powering Your Community Guidebook, available on the SunShot Solar Outreach Partnership website. Furthermore, the members of the Solar Outreach Partnership are eager to help your community address its permitting practices through their complimentary Technical Assistance program.

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