Avoiding and Resolving PV Permitting Problems

You have sold a customer on a photovoltaic project or perhaps been contracted to install the system. You have obtained the equipment, decided on the final system design and configuration, and negotiated with subcontractors. You may think that all the important elements of your project have been covered. However, one critical task remains, one that could significantly delay your project or even prevent if from being built: obtaining permits.

Rather than waiting until the end of the project contract and design process, consider permitting issues from the get-go. This includes understanding what the most common PV project permitting problems are and having effective strategies for avoiding or resolving them. Consider implementing processes and procedures internally to reduce permitting costs and shorten permit turn-around times. Last, become familiar with national efforts under way to expedite and reduce the costs of permitting. You may be able to leverage these efforts locally and take advantage of coordinated industry work to solve PV permitting problems.

Common Permitting Problems

Inconsistency. While local, state and national codes help provide a framework for design guidelines, inconsistencies abound. The existence of highly variable permitting requirements is not just a problem from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. In some cases, it is a problem within jurisdictions, from one plan reviewer to another or from one project to the next. Variables include lead times, procedures, design standards (such as array walkway or density requirements) and permit prices, any of which can create unexpected challenges to project completion or profitability.

Multiple permits. Often, when you show up at a permit office in California for a PV system permit, you will be sent directly to the local fire department, which must review and approve the plans. This was true with a recent project of ours in Orange County and seems to be standard procedure. We have found that seeking fire department approval before seeking the building authority approval is a prudent use of time, at least in California. While this is not necessarily required in every state, it may end up catching on. Oregon, for example, is currently debating a proposed state fire code for PV installations.

If you are working on a school, hospital, government or other public building, a state agency may operate as an additional or separate permit authority. Many installers have proceeded confidently with PV system pricing to their customers, only to discover a state permitting agency standing between them and their project.

Cost-prohibitive charges. Most building projects are permitted based on the value of the project or the square footage of the building. Many agencies expect to charge 1% of the value of the project as a permit fee. While the permit office may feel that this correlation works, it is not necessarily the best procedure for supporting the industry.

Determining the project’s exact value is challenging at best. Most permit agencies do not know the value of a PV system and have not seen a PV system installed in their jurisdiction. Some progressive permitting agencies encourage PV systems in their own small way by charging a flat rate for PV-project permitting, no matter the size. In my hometown of Davis, California, I am proud to report that our cantankerous permitting department charges only a fixed $200 fee for a PV system permit. In other cases, the jurisdiction may allow installers to exclude the cost of the PV modules from the project valuation when determining permit fees.

Cycle times. In 2009, public agency jobs almost unequivocally found themselves on the chopping block in the US. As jurisdictions are still working through a cash-strapped economic cycle, permit agencies are dealing with staff layoffs and furloughs nationwide. Plan reviews are increasingly outsourced to third parties and project review times have increased.

Effective Solutions

Face off. There is nothing as effective as in-person meetings to understand jurisdictional needs and address any concerns before the permit application and plans are submitted. If you can get to know the permitting authority, you have a much better chance at resolving issues and obtaining a permit quickly rather than being thrown to the bottom of the stack. It is always a good idea to schedule prepermitting meetings for large or first-time projects. Permit officials are relatively straightforward people. When you can walk them through a jobsite or they have a chance to meet with you and your customer, you have a unique opportunity to build a relationship and a rapport. Once when I needed a permit within 3 days to complete a project in 30 days or less, this tact helped my project get put at the top of the stack of plans for review. As a result, we received a permit for a goodsized project in record time.

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