NREL Software Tool Expedites Clogged Solar Queues, Increases Revenue

19 Jul 2021

The rooftop solar industry announced a major step forward in its longstanding effort to bring down project installation costs with a new app that automates the complicated and time-consuming permit application process for rooftop solar and solar-plus-storage.

This SolarAPP+ was developed by the U.S. Department of Energy National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). Early uses have streamlined the time and cut costs for installers, their customers, and the jurisdictions that control permitting, inspections, and interconnections.

San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo said rooftop solar applications “jumped six-fold” when San Jose adopted it.

This tool could shorten installation delays and improve the 17% installer profit margin by reducing the cost of permitting and inspections, California Solar and Storage Association Senior Policy Advisor Igor Tregub added in an email to Current. It is especially important with the state’s new push to make the benefits of distributed resources more accessible in low- and working-class communities. 

It will help California reach its climate goals “more quickly and cost-effectively” by reducing the cost and complexities of solar, allowing more homeowners to participate,” Sen. Scott Weiner (D-San Francisco) said. Weiner’s SB 617 requires jurisdictions to adopt SolarApp+ and provides $20 million in state funding for that purpose. It passed the California Senate but has been held by the Assembly Appropriations Committee.

“Friction free”

SolarAPP+ is needed to make installing rooftop solar with or without storage more “friction-free and consumer-friendly,” California Energy Commission Chair David Hochschild agreed.

County and city leaders should quickly adopt this new tool, Department of Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm urged during the July 15 webinar previewing SolarApp+

Why SolarApp+ Matters

Since 2010, there has been a 64% drop in the cost of residential PV systems to 2020’s $2.71 per Watt DC and a 69% drop in commercial-rooftop systems to $1.72/Wdc, according to NREL’s January 2021 solar cost report update.

Solar-plus-storage residential costs in the first quarter of 2020 were between $26,153 and $28,371 for a 7kW PV-3 kW/6 kWh storage system and between $35,591 and $37,909 for a 7kW PV-5 kW/20 kWh storage system, NREL found.

That brought the levelized cost of a residential solar-plus-storage system, calculated by NREL for the first time, to $201/MWh without the federal tax credit and $124/MWh with the tax credit, NREL added. The levelized commercial solar-plus-storage system cost was $113/MWh without the tax credit and $73/MWh with it.

Much of solar system’s cost decline—85%–over the last decade has been driven by improved average module efficiencies, now 19.5%, and falling hardware and inverter costs, NREL reported. Analysts will be watching to see if and when the deployment of SolarApp+ meaningfully reduces the “soft cost” of permitting.

Soft costs are installer expenditures for customer acquisition, system engineering, inspection and interconnection, and overhead. Despite a decade of solar industry efforts to bring them down, they remain “a large and persistent portion” of the cost of solar, NREL reported.

Soft costs can add $5,000 to a U.S. residential solar system’s installed cost and SolarApp+ may be a key breakthrough in addressing that, DOE Solar Energy Technologies Office Director Dr. Becca Jones-Albertus said during last week’s webinar. Installation costs in Australia and Germany are half those in the U.S., despite comparable wages and equipment costs.

Soft costs are calculated based on the expenses of “all staff time and resources necessary to operate a residential PV installation company” that are not directly tied to a specific installation. SolarApp+ directly impacts the time and resources needed for permitting and inspection, according to the NREL tool’s lead developer Jeff Cook.

That suggests future solar cost reductions are possible because improvements in one area of soft costs “often affect others,” the NREL report found. The streamlining of permitting could impact the costs of installers’ overhead, make it easier to acquire customers, and lead to faster, easier and lower cost inspections, advocates said during Department of Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm’s webinar. 

How SolarApp+ Works

DOE is making the online tool available free to jurisdictions responsible for permitting, inspections, and interconnections. The software allows installers to submit their permit applications, with design specifications, directly to the jurisdictional authority, NREL’s Cook said.

SolarApp+ software checks the application against that jurisdiction’s codes to ensure it complies. As soon as a code compliant application’s fees are paid, the permit is approved and a checklist for the next step, the jurisdiction’s inspection, is provided.

In pilot programs in Pleasant Hill, California, and Arizona’s Pima County and Tucson jurisdictions, the software delivered “instant” permit approvals for over 150 installations, Cook reported. The cumulative time saved for local governments on permit review and revision was 186.45 hours.

Since the pilots became standard operating procedures in those and other communities, “instant” approvals were issued for over 620 installations with a cumulative time saved of approximately 420 hours, he added. And it appeared the time savings increased as the jurisdictions became familiar with the tool.

SolarApp can Integrate with other software

To make SolarApp+ easier for jurisdictions to adopt, NREL’s software can integrate with existing online permitting software or be used as a standalone solution, Cook said. And it can be programmed to consider local settings, like specific contacts, jurisdictional boundaries, local weather, code variations, local terms and conditions, and local payment procedures and venues.

The software includes data for processing solar-plus-storage systems is being developed for use with other customer-owned distributed energy resources. That expansion will be overseen by a DOE-established foundation made up of code officials, local governments, contractors, and other subject matter experts.

Herman K. Trabish

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