Vermont Streamlines Small-Scale Solar Power

The state of Vermont signed a wide-ranging renewable energy bill into law Wednesday that will soon introduce what may be the nation's most streamlined process for getting small-scale solar installations up and running.

Among myriad other provisions, the law eliminates the sort of permitting and inspection snarls that have long delayed, complicated and, some argue, arbitrarily increased the cost of small-scale residential and commercial solar projects -- a problem that the solar industry and clean energy supporters face in dozens of states and jurisdictions across the country.

"There is a fiscal and environmental urgency for Vermont to move off fossil fuels and toward sustainable sources of power," Gov. Peter Shumlin, a Democrat, said in a statement on Wednesday.

In a nutshell, the new provision essentially eliminates permitting altogether and reduces most administrative headaches to a 10-day process or less.

For a small-scale solar customer -- a homeowner, business, a non-profit, school, municipality or any other entity interested in a solar array system up to 5 kilowatts in size -- the process will soon entail completing a registration form and a certificate of compliance with grid connection requirements.

The local utility then has 10 days to raise any issues. After that, the path is clear.

The new registration process will go into effect beginning January, 2012.

"If adopted beyond Vermont, simple registration for small solar installations could help solar businesses grow," said David Blittersdorf, the president and chief executive of Williston, Vt., based solar manufacturer and installer AllEarth Renewables, in an email Thursday morning. Blittersdorf's company worked with industry groups in the state to help legislators develop the streamlined solar registration concept.

"Rather than wasting resources on cumbersome, time consuming and often costly permitting, the industry can spend more resources on innovation and performance, bringing down the cost of solar for more American families and businesses," he continued. "That's the goal and it should be a national priority."

For years, the residential solar industry and homeowners alike have complained bitterly about local permitting bottlenecks.

Within a single service area, a solar installer or service company might well encounter dozens of different local ordinances, building and electric codes, zoning laws and permitting costs and idiosyncrasies that make estimating the final price tag -- or installation timeline -- for a solar system a nearly impossible affair.

Some installers complain an array costing $7,000 in one neighborhood could cost twice that amount -- and take weeks or months longer to get approved by all the appropriate local bureaucracies -- just a mile away in the next community simply because of added and variant permitting and inspection costs.

A study released in January by SunRun, a solar leasing company based in California, estimated that local permitting and inspection costs add roughly 50 cents per-watt, or about $2,500 to the cost of an average residential installation.

The U.S. Department of Energy has also been developing various initiatives in concert with industry partners to tackle these sorts of non-technical, bureaucratic and administrative barriers to solar power expansion.