solar panels being installed on a house (surasak jailak/Shutterstock.com)

Arizona county pilots SaaS solar permit processing

Using a cloud-based app that automates the permitting process for solar panels on residential properties, an Arizona county saved almost 1,400 hours of employee work time between April and October.

Specifically, Pima County saved 1,394 hours reviewing 1,257 permits using Solar Automated Permit Processing Plus (SolarAPP+), a software-as-a-service application that the National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL) developed and partnered with Accela to launch. The county’s largest city, Tucson, saved another 555 hours reviewing 489 permits using the app. The mean permit review time was just one hour.

“We consider this a win-win across the board because not only does it cut down the times for the installer, but it also frees up our staff,” said Carla Blackwell, the county’s director of development services. “Our plan reviewers, their time is precious and we have a lot of complex buildings going up here in Pima County, so it frees up our staff time to be looking at those plans.”

Previously, the process took five to seven days, she said. Panel installers and contractors would submit plans digitally to the department, reviewers would check them, revise them when necessary and approve them.

Through SolarAPP+, the installers answer a series of questions and enter data about the system that they want to install and how they intend to install it.

“SolarAPP+ performs what’s called the plan review, and that is assessing the system’s design characteristics and confirming that it is safe to install that system as designed on the home,” said Jeff Cook, renewable energy policy and market analyst at NREL. “Accela manages most of the user experience, or front-end relationship with the contractor who would submit the approved plans from SolarAPP+ into Accela’s system for the jurisdiction. Accela then would process all of the payments on behalf of the jurisdiction, and then that is all maintained within the jurisdiction’s permitting system.”

SolarAPP+ can automatically catch common errors, such as mistakes in building codes, typos or incomplete fields, when contractors submit their plans and send them back for fixes.

“That back-and-forth is where you see elongation of the approval process because someone has to look at it and send it back to a citizen to correct it and send it back,” said Tom Nieto, chief operating officer at Accela, adding that without the app, the process takes two to eight weeks. With SolarAPP+, Pima County had a mean revision time of 45 minutes.

SolarAPP+ also streamlines the inspection process after panels are installed by generating a checklist of items to evaluate. “SolarAPP+ actually did a much more detailed review of the installation than we ever did in looking at the drawings,” Blackwell said.

Accela customers can integrate SolarAPP+ into their Accela Building solution to speed review and approval processes and track permits from start to finish within a single system.

Pima County was part of a pilot test of the app that started at the end of 2020. The area was experiencing a construction boom and needed a way to streamline aspects of the permitting process.

What’s more, the department had some vacancies and was looking for technology to reduce the workload, Blackwell added. “Between the city and the county permits and revisions, it’s almost 2,000 hours that have been saved,” she said. “When you hit the 2,080 hours saved, that is one full-time personnel position.”

The Energy Department will fund the project until March 2023, when NREL will transition the day-to-day operations of the software to UL, although NREL will always have oversight of the activities, said Cook, NREL’s SolarAPP+ Project Lead.

It will always be free for jurisdictions, he added, although contractors pay a fee, which is currently $25.

The county is working on automating other types of reviews, such as battery storage, automated vehicle chargers for garages and building-integrated solar technology, like solar roof tiles, Blackwell said. “We’re working with national partners on how to automate those reviews in compliance with all the fire codes and the building codes,” she said, adding that Pima County and the city of Tucson are “a testing laboratory” for those types of systems.

Accela’s Nieto said he expects the market for solar panels to grow along with an increased global focus on the environment. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm is encouraging mayors to adopt SolarAPP+, California has a mandate requiring that new-construction homes have a solar photovoltaic system as an electricity source and some localities are trying to facilitate adoption through incentives. For instance, Fairfax County, Va., waived the fee for solar permit applications and provides a solar energy equipment tax exemption.

About the Author

Stephanie Kanowitz is a freelance writer based in northern Virginia.

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