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What municipalities can learn from the nationwide solar push

Municipalities have simplified the permitting and zoning processes with standardized procedures, an online checklist of requirements and self-assessments to identify unnecessary barriers.

Pictured is a Solar States installation on a commercial building in South Philadelphia.
Pictured is a Solar States installation on a commercial building in South Philadelphia.Read moreSolar States

Towns across the country that want to promote development and generally make life better for businesses and homeowners have long battled the enemy within – bureaucracy.

Now they are looking at common sense steps to get out of their own way.

Take the case of solar energy, where bureaucracy has cast a shadow over efforts to promote its use as a renewable alternative to traditional, polluting energy sources. Some officials say experiences with solar might even provide a road map for promoting efficiencies in local government.

Municipalities in the region and across the country have simplified the permitting and zoning processes with standardized procedures, an online checklist of requirements and assessments to identify unnecessary barriers to remove.

It's too soon to say if clearing some of the red-tape obstacles will translate into a steady surge of new solar energy consumption. But some of the early signs are, well, bright.

A national program launched in 2016 called SolSmart uses U.S. Department of Energy funds to spur the removal of solar roadblocks at the local level.

More than 180 municipalities across the country have committed to simplify solar permitting, including Philadelphia; Pottstown Borough, Montgomery County; the city of Chester, Delaware County; and Cheltenham Township, Montgomery County.

New Jersey has been a solar pioneer and is well ahead of Pennsylvania in the solar market.

LeAnne Harvey, a spokeswoman in Philadelphia's Office of Sustainability, acknowledged getting a permit "can be such a hassle," especially for families and small solar panel installers, so the city streamlined the steps.

"Generally speaking, shorter is cheaper," said Sean Gallagher, vice president of state affairs for the national trade group Solar Energy Industries Association, which estimates that solar could account for 5 percent of all electrical generation by 2022.

Both developers and towns see the savings.

The online checklist that lays out exactly what applicants need to submit saves local officials money, because it saves time, said Art Noel, assistant director of building and planning for Lower Merion Township, Montgomery County.

"There's less time spent on our part having to call an applicant saying, 'You're lacking this. Go get an engineer to certify this. You don't have a plan that shows what portion of the roof (solar panels are) going on,'" Noel said.

Complex local processes can add up to $700 to the cost of a typical residential solar installation, while streamlining local regulations can reduce the cost by $2,500, according to the Interstate Renewable Energy Council and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Installation costs can run past $10,000.

In Philadelphia, "it used to be we would have to go physically there, drop a permit off and wait and not have any idea what the process was or when we'd get a response," said Skyler Willman-Cole, chief operations officer of Solar States, a Philadelphia-based solar installation company. "It was a very difficult process. Not to say that it's perfect, but it's a lot better than it was."

And it will get better when permitting moves online later this year. Already, simple residential projects, such as solar panels for single-family homes, typically get responses from the city's Department of Licenses and Inspections in five days. The city used to require both building and electrical permits for solar projects. In 2016, it dropped the building permit requirement.

Philadelphia has "seen a significant uptick" in solar applications, especially in the last year, as solar costs drop, according to the sustainability office. The trend is nationwide.

The U.S. Department of Energy gave Philadelphia a grant a decade ago to encourage solar development in the city, some of which the city used to improve the permitting process, write guidebooks for solar projects and make solar development a right instead of a special exception in the zoning code. In 2012, City Council passed a bill to reduce permit costs by excluding the cost of solar panels and certain other equipment.

Outside the city, municipal practices in Pennsylvania and New Jersey vary. Some require solar developers and homeowners to mail certified letters to neighbors and testify at a zoning hearing. Some ask them to mail in their applications and wait for mailed responses. Some require applicants to drop off paperwork in person and come back for an answer with a check. Each generally has their own permitting process solar developers have to learn as they move from municipality to municipality.

Fees also vary. In Solar States' experience, a permit in Philadelphia can cost a couple hundred dollars while a permit outside the city recently cost $900.

Standardization eases the burden on homeowners, developers and local governments.

Lower Merion set its standard permit fee for a home's roof installation at $400. That's down from the $1,500 range the township charged when it based fees off installation costs. Employees can turn around solar permit applications in three business days now instead of the 15 days Pennsylvania code allows.

Before the changes, the township issued about 80 building permits for solar installations over a decade. It has issued 13 in the last eight months.

"We're a progressive community," said Noel, explaining Lower Merion's interest in the solar program. "We're not married to the way we've always done things."