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At symposium, solar experts stress need for streamlined permitting

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At a solar energy symposium this morning at Rutgers University, in Piscataway, industry experts emphasized the need for more science, technology and streamlined permitting, not government subsidies, to lower the cost of solar power.

According to Ramamoorthy Ramesh, director of the Sunshot Initiative at the U.S. Department of Energy, there are 18,000 local jurisdictions in the country with different permitting requirements for residential and commercial photovoltaics installation, with 5,000 different utility companies implementing their connection to the power grid. Ramesh said "more paperwork means higher costs," noting that 60 percent of the costs of installing a residential solar system stems from permitting, inspection and connection to the grid.

"If it takes six months to obtain a permit and costs a contractor $2,000 to get it … maybe there's a way to create a 10-day, $500 permitting process," Ramesh said. "It's not so straightforward, though, because that $2,000 is a revenue base for the town, so we want them to participate in the process of finding alternatives."

To help streamline and reduce costs of the permitting process, the DOE has kicked off a Rooftop Solar Challenge among 22 teams made up of local governments, utility companies and local stakeholders to develop the same permitting requirements across populations of 500,000.

According to Richard Myers, senior director of solar vertical market management for Siemens Industry Inc., such a mechanism would also inform utility companies and townships when a new system is installed, which he said would help them "ferret out the most effective projects … from the amount of distributed generation that's unbridled in the private sector."

"The two markets we spend the most time in the policy space is New Jersey and California," Myers said. "I know California has so much activity that there's no way for them to manage it. With this kind of technology, these states can better manage demand coming on the grid without feeling overwhelmed by planning."

Clark Wiedetz, director of alternative energy for Siemens, said New Jersey should consider a pre-approval process for developers, which he said was recently enacted in California.

"When you have to wait six months for approval, it hurts all sizes of firms," Wieditz said. "When you put in your bid for the energy, and then the rates change 90 days later after you already have financing, the banks won't make any changes to your financing, and it kills your project."

Ramesh said one goal of the DOE's Sunshot Initiative — which has $219 million in funding for grants and workshops — is to create subsidy-free solar electricity and reduce its cost by 75 percent by 2020 through innovation in science and technology, noting that government subsidies currently "skew the solar market and the energy's true value." To make that vision a reality, Sunshot will unveil a national competition for researchers to find a way to get costs down to $2 per watt on June 13.

"In Germany, residential PV systems are sold at $2.44 a watt," Ramesh said. "The U.S. excels the most in solar innovation … so we want to find out if we can have residential PVs at $2 a watt, without any incentives, at the scale of 1,000 homes. If someone discovers it can happen in one neighborhood, maybe we can branch out that model for the rest of the country."

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