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Solar permits: What are they, how to get them, who’s to do it

The longest part of going solar is getting permission from utilities and local governments - it can take weeks and more if you screw up the application. What are solar permits? How much do they cost? Can you get them yourself? All this and more in our article on the solar permitting process.

There are two solar permits you’ll need

The whole purpose of solar permits is to make sure that the PV system that you want to install is going to be safe for your house, neighbors and the commercial grid. Generally, you must obtain permission from two entities:

  • Electric utility. Your provider assesses and approves all applications to connect solar systems to the power grid.

  • City planning department or building department. This agency checks if a solar system project complies with building and electrical codes.

Interconnection permit

To connect a solar system to a commercial grid, you have to get permission from your utility. First, the provider requests the details of the solar system that you want to install. Here is what they are particularly interested in:

  1. The location of your utility meter, electrical panel or panels, and the proposed location of a solar array and the inverter.

  2. The quantity of solar panels and inverters, along with their specifications.

  3. The capacity rating for both your power inverter and PV array.

When you are building an off-grid installation, you won’t need an interconnection permit but you’ll still require a building permit.

Building or structural permit

Solar installations must adhere to the requirements for U.S. construction projects. That’s why the local building department will have to make sure your solar project meets structural requirements, electrical requirements, and fire safety provisions.

10-15 pages

your average solar permit application

Vasilii Smirnov
Solar Installation Expert

If you're installing solar panels on your roof, the inspectors will have to verify if your roof is designed to handle the additional weight of the solar array — the ‘dead load’. With modern homes, it’s usually not a problem but older houses might have weak or damaged roofs that can't support the extra weight. In this case, you’ll have to either repair or replace your roof or alternatively, consider a ground-mounted solar system.

The design of a solar system has to comply with the National Electric Code and fire safety codes. Codes and rules differ from state to state and city to city and get updated every few years. This is one of the reasons why DIY grid-tie systems are a rare case: even if you are good with tools, you’ll also have to learn these codes, plan your system accordingly and make sure that your equipment fits the requirements. In many cases, the authorities demand the system to be completed only by a certified installer.

Permit requirements vary for rooftop and ground-mounted solar setups. For instance, you might not require a building permit for a ground-mounted solar array, but you will need a land use and zoning permit.

In some regions, you might need to get permission from the Homeowners Association (HOA) to install solar panels on your house. However, authorities try to limit HOAs from banning PV systems. For example, California Solar Rights Act prohibits them from denying the installation of solar panels and only lets HOAs impose reasonable restrictions on a system that won’t increase its cost by more than $1,000 or decrease its efficiency by more than 10%.

Wait for PTO before turning on solar system

After your solar system is complete, contact your city planning agency and utility to schedule a post-installation solar inspection. Inspectors from both organizations will check the quality and safety of your solar setup, the wiring, and ensure that it complies with building codes and fire safety requirements. You — or your installer — have to get Permission to Operate (PTO) from the utility before turning the system on.

Rely on the installer or get the permits yourself

Generally, an installer takes care of permits for you. An application should be reviewed by a professional engineer and many solar installers are either certified to do it or work with engineers that specialize in solar permit services. If the contractor is responsible for permits, the fees should be listed in the overall installation quote.

Vasilii Smirnov
Solar Installation Expert

Always bring up the subject of permits when choosing an installer and talking to different companies. Make sure it’s clear who takes care of them. An experienced installer knows the ins and outs of getting the permits in your area and can provide an accurate estimate of how much it is going to cost.

If you are installing solar panels by yourself, then you have to get permits on your own. Start by searching the web with a query like “solar permit [your location]”. If you can’t find anything, call the office of local authorities and tell them you want to permit a new solar system. Ensure that the authority having jurisdiction allows DIY solar installations.

Here are a few examples of how solar permits are issued in different parts of America: 

  • Portland, Oregon, provides a thorough guide on going solar and getting the permissions. The applications are accepted via the DevHub platform. 

  • Berkley, California, uses SolarApp+ for applications, a platform for streamlining the permitting process. The authorities provide guides and checklists on their website.

  • Miami, Florida, uses iBuild portal for solar permit applications. Roofing permits aren’t required for a standard residential system.

US works on unified solar permitting procedure

Solar permits are part of solar systems’ soft costs

The typical residential solar permitting fee across the US is about $500 and higher. The exact amount differs depending on your location because there is no standardized permitting procedure for solar panel systems.

The fact that every state, town and county permits PV systems differently is a big problem. First, it greatly increases the time it takes for a homeowner to get a green light. Second, it increases the cost of going solar. Soft costs, like permits, installation labor, and shipping, already make up 60-70% of a solar system's final cost.

Soft costs make up ~65% of overall cost of a solar system in US

Vasilii Smirnov
Solar Installation Expert

On average, getting the permits takes 2-4 weeks and this is the longest part of the whole installation process. It is especially tough in small local communities where the process is not ironed out.

Installers, authorities and solar providers work together on a solution. For example, California implemented the Solar Permitting Efficiency Act in 2014 which requires all city and county governments to establish a procedure for a fast and simple permitting process for home rooftop solar systems under 10 kilowatts. The guidelines were outlined in the California Solar Permitting Guidebook. If you plan to get the permits yourself, you can skim through it but be aware that some information in it may be outdated or not applicable to your location or project at all.

U.S. Department of Energy Solar Energy Technologies Office (SETO) funds projects that help the permitting process for local governments. Two of them are:

  • SolarAPP+ is a web-based platform designed to automate the solar permitting process for local governments and other authorities having jurisdiction. 

  • SolSmart is a program that provides support and recognition to local governments actively working to decrease soft costs and enhance accessibility to solar energy.

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Andrey Gorichenski
Senior Editor

Andrey had been a news editor and freelance writer for a number of medias before joining A1SolarStore team. Climate change and its impact on people's lives has always been among his interests and it partially explains his degree in Philosophy and Ethics.

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