Around the Web: NRECA Unveils Interactive Website Tracking Cooperative Solar Development

AroundTheWebThe National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA) has unveiled an interactive websiteRedirecting to a non-government site tracking solar development by electric cooperatives. Offering maps, data, photos and video, the website provides an overview and new details about the recent dramatic increase in cooperative-owned and purchased solar capacity.

Member-owned, not for profit co-ops either have online or are planning to develop 240 megawatts of owned and purchased solar capacity in 34 states. According to NRECA, this development is distinguished by its large footprint, rapid growth and potential for expansion.

“Co-op solar is consumer-owned solar,” said NRECA CEO Jo Ann Emerson. “The solar website shows how the consumer-owned utility business model can spur innovation and expand solar capacity in regions where this resource had previously been written off as too expensive or not viable.”

Highlights of the new website include maps showing the co-op solar footprint, solar projects developed abroad by NRECA International and median income levels and co-op solar development. Visitors will also find a chart showing the cumulative growth of co-op solar capacity, and videos, pictures and stories of significant co-op solar projects throughout the nation.

The website complements NRECA research, funded by the Department of Energy’s SunShot initiative, to develop tools and business strategies to accelerate the deployment of utility-scale solar.

Co-ops are making significant investments in renewable resource generation, using loans from the Rural Utilities Service and other sources. With solar becoming more cost-competitive, electric co-ops are poised to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in new projects. In addition, co-ops purchase renewable energy from large projects such as the 31 MW Cimarron Solar Facility in New Mexico and the 7.7 MW Azalea Solar Power Facility in Georgia.

Source: National Rural Electric Cooperative Association via Renewables Biz, 11/8/14

Palo Alto honored for successfully streamlining solar permitting process

CPAU_logoAt the 2014 Solar Power Generation USA CongressRedirecting to a non-government site in San Diego, the national Award for Best Collaboration went to the city of Palo Alto, Calif.Redirecting to a non-government site, for streamlining its residential and commercial solar array approval process.

Palo Alto earned the award by bringing together stakeholders from the public, private and government sectors to make it faster and easier to install a photovoltaic (PV) system in the city. The collaborative project reduced the average 122-day wait for a solar permit in Palo Alto to five days, and in most cases the permit can be issued over the counter. The time it takes until final inspection is down to 140 days from the 209 days, with inspection requests being accommodated on the same or next day. As a result of these improvements, the number of solar applications received in city the same three-month period increased by 67 percent.

The best intentions
Standards for solar panel installation vary from state to state, even city to city; and contractor certification requirements are equally inconsistent. A strong approval and inspection process for installations ensures public safety, code compliance and quality work. “There will always be a few bad actors who will take advantage of cities and utilities that are under pressure to meet renewable energy mandates,” observed Peter Pirnejad, Development Services director for the City of Palo Alto. “Ultimately, that hurts consumers, renewable programs and the industry itself.”

But a too-rigorous process can hinder deployment, too, added Pirnejad, making an agency seem excessively bureaucratic and obstructive. In an effort to protect citizens, Palo Alto requirements had mushroomed to include full copies of installation guidelines on all the components of the array. “It is a balancing act, and we had gone too far in the direction of caution,” he acknowledged.

The first step in restoring balance was getting input from the local solar industry. Pirnejad, who joined the city in 2012, brought together a large group of installers to discuss the process. “We received a lot of feedback about our requirements and responsiveness,” he recalled. “It was clear that the problem was systemic.”

Get it done
Overhauling the process was the goal, and the city wasted no time moving forward. “You can’t say you want to streamline a system, and then take a long time to do it,” Pirnejad pointed out.

The Development Services Department assembled a task force of solar contractors, residents, utility representatives and city officials. In three meetings over four months, the group identified ways to create a more transparent and efficient permitting process.

The first round of fixes included setting a flat fee for residential installations, eliminating the requirement to engineer residential PV systems and reducing the number of required inspections. The city standardized a PV permit checklist, modeled on The Solar America Board Codes and Standards (Solar ABCs) Expedited Permit ProcessRedirecting to a non-government site and created a website where applicants can find all the requirements and city contacts.

Not there yet
The initial changes made a big difference in the first six months following implementation. The average number of days the city took to issue a permit dropped 37 percent. Streamlining reduced the number of days to finalize a permit by 15 percent, and cut in half the time it took to complete a review.

The city presented those results to the community for a six-month review, and the community’s gentle, but firm response was better, but not good enough. “The issues were more about efficiency than speed,” Pirnejad said.

In trying to turn around permit requests in three days, the city was stretching its system to the breaking point. The time it took the city to return plan check comments was viewed as less of a problem than how long it to issue the permit to build. People were having trouble meeting the requirements for over-the-counter permitting. Design plan checks had become faster but the number of rechecks and plan resubmittals had climbed. Similarly, contractors were less concerned about how long it took the city to respond to the field inspection request and more concerned about how often inspections were being failed.

The task force reached out to PV designers and installers again for help in refining the process. Pirnejad credits that input with helping the city find a balance between speed and thoroughness. “If I had one word of advice for cities trying to simplify and expedite their PV review and inspection experience, it would be ‘collaboration,'” he said. “To get a process that works for both the city and the designers, both parties have to come together.”

Better than awards

This is the 500th PV system installed in Palo Alto's territory, replacing the first system installed in 1983! The city's streamlined permitting process is helping to increase applications to install solar panels on homes and businesses. (Photo by City of Palo Alto)
This is the 500th PV system installed in Palo Alto’s territory, replacing the first system installed in 1983! The city’s streamlined permitting process is helping to increase applications to install solar panels on homes and businesses. (Photo by City of Palo Alto)

Palo Alto seems to have reached the goal of a process that works for the most people. In last quarter of 2013, the city received more solar permit applications than during the entire year of 2012. In December of 2013 alone, 38 applications moved through the process, compared to 40 in all of 2011.

Streamlining the permitting process will help the already carbon-neutral city increase the amount of clean electricity generated locally. The process for permitting electric vehicle charging stations was also covered in the overhaul, so it is likely to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions from transportation, too.

Shortly after the improved process went into effect, the Vote Solar Initiative contacted Palo Alto. The nonprofit renewable energy advocate had heard about the collaborative project and wanted to feature it in a webinar about how cities should work. Project Permit, a Vote Solar program that scores municipal solar permitting practices nationwide, has given the Palo Alto permitting process a gold star.

The PV industry has shown its appreciation too, with SolarCityRedirecting to a non-government site and Cobalt Power SystemsRedirecting to a non-government site, two of the city’s largest PV installers, publicly praising the dramatic changes. “The City of Palo Alto deserves a tremendous amount of credit for listening to the needs of solar customers and making direct changes based on those needs,” said Jefferson Silver, senior commercial project manager for SolarCity.

“This type of collaboration between city staff and developers facilitates a deeper level of interaction within our community,” said Palo Alto City Manager James Keene in an interview.

Keep on keeping on
Pirnejad and the Development Services team have not allowed success to go to their heads. “Municipalities need to continuously monitor their requirements to make sure they remain efficient and reflect current best practices,” he explained.

The ties the city built with the community during the streamlining project will help to keep the process from backsliding, Pirnejad believes. “Getting all the stakeholders involved and really listening to them is what gets results,” he declared. “The human touch makes all the difference.”

New online solar training targets building code officials – UPDATE!

The limited training of municipal code officials—the individuals who approve proposed plans and inspect and approve installations of photovoltaic (PV) systems—presents a significant barrier to expanding the solar market. To help address this issue, the Interstate Renewable Energy Council Redirecting to a non-government site (IREC) has launched a dynamic new online training opportunity this month through the National Training and Educational Resource Redirecting to a non-government site (NTER). The system provides consistent, effective training to quickly and cost-effectively reach a far greater number of code officials than traditional onsite workshops and seminars could.

The project is part of IREC’s role as the national administrator of the Solar Instructor Training Network, through a grant with U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). “Development of the Photovoltaic Online Training (PVOT) project expands the reach and scale of training,” says IREC Executive Director Jane Weissman, “and it creates an avenue for more consistent learning nationwide.”

While the online program is targeted to code officials, to instruct in key issues for granting permits and performing field inspections for residential PV installations, it is also available to others. Read more. Source: IREC News, 10/1/12

UPDATE!

As part of its commitment to invest in skills for American workers, the Energy Department is offering the online training free to building and electrical code inspectors for residential PV installations. There is a nominal fee for obtaining continuing education units through the International Association of Electrical Inspectors Redirecting to a non-government site (IAEI). Participants who want credit should check with their local jurisdiction or state to determine if the jurisdiction recognizes IAEI’s continuing education units.

The PVOT program supports the mission of DOE’s SunShot Initiative, which aims to deliver cost-competitive solar energy by 2020 while creating workforce development opportunities and driving energy innovation across the United States.

Water heating technologies workshop announced

The latest Demand-side Management Technology Workshop, Advances in Water Heating Technologies, is coming to Western’s Rocky Mountain region August 31.

Learn about the latest developments that are making water heaters an even more valuable tool in demand-side management programs. This one-day event at Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association in Westminster, Colo., will cover different types of units, including solar and heat pump water heaters, program design and marketing and best practices.

Registration is free to Western customers ($100 for other attendees), but space is limited, so reserve your place now. Class materials, continental breakfast and lunch are included.