The Denver Post reports that more and more Colorado citizens are going solar. Annual home installations in Colorado more than doubled between 2012 and 2014 to 42 megawatts. Across the country, a new solar system is being installed every 4 minutes.
But before you can go solar, you have to navigate the local permitting process. And after your system is installed, you have to get it connected to the local grid before you can use it. Both of those can take a lot of time, says a new study by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory that is based on data from 87 utilities in 16 states.
Kristen Ardani, co-author of the NREL report, says “Addressing [the delay] is critical to widespread adoption of PV.” Another report from NREL suggests that the permitting and connection hassles may actual deter some people interested in home solar from moving forward.
Xcel Energy, Colorado’s largest electricity supplier, and the state’s main trade group, the Colorado Solar Energy Industries Association (COSEIA), have taken steps to speed up approvals. “We are growing into a new era of solar in Colorado,” said John Bringenberg, a COSEIA board member. “Our systems have to change with it.”
In May of 2014, Xcel Energy launched a new online, cloud based portal to simplify the process for customers and panel installers to file applications. Parts of the filing are now automated and signatures can be done electronically. “It’s much more transparent and enables you to track projects,” said Dan Yechout, residential solar sales director for Boulder-based installer Namaste Solar. Applications and approvals now take about 2 weeks.
The amount of time required varies from utility company to utility company. “Sometimes it feels as if utilities are not trying to make this partnership work,” said Will Craven, a spokesman for SolarCity, which is the largest solar company in the US and leases home solar panels in 16 states.
In Xcel’s Colorado service area, it takes an average of 41 days to complete a residential system, Craven says. That’s not as bad as SolarCity’s experience with Maryland’s Pepco, which typically takes 90 days to complete an application. Craven says Connecticut Light & Power and San Diego Gas & Electric get the job done in the least amount of time — typically five days or less.
Getting building permits for going solar is an entirely different headache for homeowners. That process can take as much as 45 days in some Colorado communities and permits must be in hand before contacting the local utility company.
“As solar arrays become more standardized, we are trying to encourage local building departments to think of them not like a custom house addition but a furnace.” says COSEIA executive director Rebecca Cantwell. Changes made by Fort Collins knocked two weeks off the city’s permitting process, Cantwell said. Denver provides one-day, over-the-counter permits.
Once a system is installed in Colorado, Xcel Energy needs to add a second meter to measure the solar electricity produced, which typically takes another 15 to 20 days. But in San Diego, Ken Parks, the customer generation manager for San Diego Gas & Electric, says once all the approvals are in and the panels are up, they are immediately plugged into the grid. “We don’t have to add a meter,” Parks said. “We have smart meters that we can program remotely, and then they are on.”
There are more barriers to rooftop solar installations than just cost. Administrative headaches may turn some potential solar converts off completely. That’s why working with companies with experience installing solar systems in your area rather than doing it yourself or trusting Billy Bob’s Speedy Solar is the best idea.