Minnesotans can be proud that our state is a leader in deploying solar energy. Solar provides clean, local, cost-effective electricity that can empower people to take control of their energy sources. Despite our leadership in this area, there’s much more that can and should be done to make solar accessible to all Minnesotans.
If our communities would streamline administrative regulations, we could lower the cost of going solar by as much as $500 for a typical home rooftop system.
Streamlining regulations can attract more economic development and jobs to communities as well. According to the Solar Foundation, Minnesota has 4,256 solar jobs. Half of these are in installation. Increasing the rooftop solar market would boost these jobs, particularly in outstate communities.
A wide variety of permitting rules
The solar permitting process is designed to ensure that systems are properly installed, but the variety of permitting rules across municipalities makes it harder for installers to implement quality systems. It adds time and expense to the process of going solar because installers have to develop systems to deal with each jurisdiction’s rules. More than half the cost of going solar comes not from the panels or other equipment but from “soft costs,” like permitting. If municipalities were to streamline the permitting process for rooftop solar, it would save time and money for all involved.
The actual installation of solar panels on a home only takes one to two days, but the process of going solar can last several months. First, your solar installer will work with you to design a system for your home. Once you sign a contract for that system, the installer will need to apply for permits. Once your system is installed, your local municipality will inspect it to ensure that it is up to local code. The installer will request permission to interconnect it to your utility’s electric grid. Once you receive permission, your system can start producing electricity.
My nonprofit organization, Solar United Neighbors, helps thousands of people a year go solar. We work closely with homeowners and installers through bulk purchasing groups we call “solar co-ops” to help people learn about solar and have it installed at their homes. This work has taught us firsthand the burdens that permitting can place on solar installation.
What municipalities can do
Fortunately, there are several things municipalities can do to make it easier to go solar. They should make publicly available a checklist that details their solar permitting process. This allows installers and homeowners to know beforehand what to expect when submitting a permit, so that they are sure to include all the necessary items for that municipality. Municipalities should also provide a streamlined permitting pathway for small solar systems with turn-around time of no more than three days. These two items can reduce the costs to homeowners, since there will be less time expended by installers, as well as less city staff time to review solar applications.
Work to streamline the permitting process has already begun across our state. Eleven Minnesota municipalities have taken advantage of a great federal program to improve access to solar and boost local solar markets. The Sol Smart program provides free technical assistance to communities to evaluate local programs and practices and identify opportunities for improvement. Interested municipalities can contact the Metropolitan Council, the Clean Energy Resource Teams, and Great Plains Institute for assistance here in Minnesota.
These common-sense actions will show that our local governments encourage and support locally generated clean energy and greater access to solar for all.
Virginia Rutter is the program director for Solar United Neighbors of Minnesota. She works across the state to help homeowners and communities go solar, join together, and fight for their energy rights.
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