Building Solar Friendly Communities in Colorado

Coloradoans often brag that the state receives an average of 300 days of sunshine each year. In addition to attracting outdoor enthusiasts year round, the sun also positions Colorado as an emerging hub in the booming U.S. solar market.

In Colorado, installed solar photovoltaic capacity grew 165 percent from 2009-2010, and we’re seeing an increasing number of lease and power-purchase agreement providers as new business models converge on the state. Major cities throughout Colorado are setting ambitious renewable energy goals (in addition to the state renewable portfolio standard calling for 30 percent renewables by 2020) supported by utilities in an effort to create jobs, attract high-tech companies, and support community-level energy independence.

Rooftop solar is an important part of our future electricity system because of its ability to enhance energy security, protect against volatile fuel prices and retail electricity rate increases, and mitigate environmental issues. But, for rooftop solar to play its role—both on the national and local level—costs must come down.

While Colorado cities have little control over module costs, local governments, utilities, building departments and citizens do play a central role in tackling the “soft costs” of solar. Such non-hardware balance of system (BoS) costs can account for up to 40 percent of installed PV system costs.

Now, the cities of Fort Collins, Golden, and Denver, plus Boulder County, are tackling this challenge head-on with the help of RMI and the Colorado Solar Energy Industries Association (COSEIA). Through Solar Friendly Communities, a project funded by the U.S. Department of Energy under the Rooftop Solar Challenge, these partners aim to lower costs by streamlining processes, improving procedural efficiency, and creating educational resources to drive down BoS costs and help drive rooftop solar adoption.

The four initial communities serve on a “steering committee” with RMI and COSEIA to meet the goals of the Solar Friendly Communities program. Among other efforts, they are working to develop a roadmap of best practices that may become the basis of a recognition program akin to the bicycle friendly communities designation system.

“With solar’s potential in Colorado, we hypothesize that local governments like our pilot cities will need processes in place to handle 10 to 100 times more installations per month than current rates,” said Jesse Morris, RMI analyst and member of the Solar Friendly Communities team. “Moreover, these processes must be efficient, safe, and dynamic.”

May 15-16 kicked off a series of workshops in Fort Collins and Golden where RMI and COSEIA laid the groundwork to analyze current  operations that take solar installations from permit, to inspection, to completion. Discussion centered on how well the communities’ existing procedures and departments can scale up and down with changes in demand. These initial workshops revealed a number of common city-level challenges.

Long on Responsibilities, Short on Resources

When the housing market crashed—and the economy along with it—city building departments’ budgets and staff were cut in response to the construction slowdown. Now that the market is rebounding, solar permitting and inspections are thrown in with a long and growing to-do list. And, adding staff or resources quickly is rarely an option.

This resource crunch is a particular challenge in pursuing a process best practice: providing an accurate time window or call-ahead for solar inspections, which can cut costs by reducing idle time of installers waiting for inspectors to show up on site.

Anticipating a solar uptick, both Fort Collins and Golden are faced with the decision to either add resources or do things more efficiently.

Duplicative Processes Add to Timeline and Workload

In Golden, an application for a solar permit is logged in, then goes to the planning department, which signs off and sends it to the building department (which reviews both building and electrical permitting). Permits are reviewed in the order they are received, then either approved or denied by the buildings department. Interconnection procedures with Xcel Energy follow a separate path.

In Fort Collins, both the buildings department and municipally owned utility must inspect a new installation, and they do so with different motivations. Buildings want to make sure it’s safe from a structural standpoint, and the utility wants to make sure the electrical systems work properly before connecting the array to its grid.

“Currently, there’s a duplication in process,” said Norm Weaver of the Fort Collins Municipal Utility. “In an economy where you’re looking for savings, this is frustrating. Neither customers nor city council like to see duplication of services.”

Offering a standard permit form that is eligible for expedited review or requiring only one inspection of standard rooftop systems on existing homes may require a big change in process for many departments, but could save an enormous amount of time and money.

The Misconception That Cutting Costs Sacrifices Safety

Priority number one with any rooftop solar installation is human safety. A common misconception is that efficient means quick, and quick means that important safety procedures are eliminated, skipped, or overlooked in haste. This notion can make decision makers tentative to part with existing processes.

For example, Fort Collins requires a utility external disconnect switch (or UEDS, a device that the utility uses to isolate a renewable energy system and prevent electricity from accidentally going to the grid during routine or emergency maintenance) on all solar installations. The requirement adds about $200 to each installation.

“The UEDS requirement may be an added cost, or it may save costs in permitting and inspection. Ultimately, we’re tying to understand which issues are easier and more digestible to tackle as a group, and which are non-negotiable,” said RMI’s Ned Harvey. “The goal is to help cities meet demand when it comes and increase efficiency so it is a win-win for both costs and safety.”

Workshop discussion presented a major collaborative step in tackling these challenges. Fort Collins and Golden will start by looking at other jurisdictions operating under similar resource constraints that have managed to overcome these challenges to devise a solution that works best for each community’s unique needs. Ultimately, the group will devise a roadmap for solar friendly communities that can be adopted by any city of any size throughout the state.

The next two workshops will take place later this month in Denver and Boulder.

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