By reducing project timelines and costs, automated permits support faster clean energy generation.

California passed SB 379, the Solar Energy Access Act, which requires cities and counties to adopt automated solar permitting systems. The act is expected to shorten project timelines and lower the cost of residential solar permits.

The law is a welcome change for rooftop solar installers and customers who rely on short project timelines for a positive customer experience. Projects with a rated capacity of 38.4 kW and below are eligible for an automated permit.

The bill says California may need to deploy up to 6 GW of new renewable energy and storage annually to meet its clean energy goals.

“This bill will help cities and counties transition to solar by reducing permitting costs and waiting times. With the passage of the solar permitting legislation, it’s exciting that more Californians can now take advantage of this abundant energy source,” said Stephen King, Clean Energy Advocate, Environment California.

“California’s substantial rooftop solar and battery array helped avoid blackouts during the most recent heat wave. Now it will be even easier for consumers to get these technologies. We need to do everything we can to remove the barriers to further adoption of solar and storage,” King said.

The law also aims to reduce permitting costs, which are part of a pressing cost incentive problem in the U.S. rooftop solar market.

Soft cost is anything not directly related to building the system and includes items such as design, fees, selling costs, taxes, and insurance. Sean Rumery, SEIA’s senior director of research, put it mildly expenses represent 60-70% of total residential solar costs and 50-60% of total commercial solar costs. Since 2014, residential system costs have fallen by about 25%, but soft system costs have only fallen by 15%, according to SEIA.

The Department of Energy is working to address this issue across the country development and testing of SolarAPP+ automated permitting tool. SolarApp+ can handle about 90% of solar permits in most jurisdictions, handling simpler projects and freeing up time for jurisdictions to focus on the more complex building permits that are already clogging up their pipelines.

The California law states: “As the 2021 budget includes $20 million in Energy Commission appropriations for grants to all jurisdictions adopting SolarAPP+ or a similar program to expedite permitting, local permitting jurisdictions can and should be required adopt SolarAPP+ or a similar automated permitting program to promote solar and storage development to help meet the state’s clean energy needs.”

The law exempts cities with a population of less than 5,000 and counties with a population of less than 150,000, including every city in that county. Cities with a population of 50,000 or less must comply with the law by September 30, 2024, and cities, counties, and cities and counties with a population of more than 50,000 must comply by September 30, 2023.

In July of this year, California launched incentive program for cities to adopt SolarAPP+. A program called CalAPP provides grants and assistance to cover staff time and other resources spent on adoptions. The maximum grant amount ranges from $40,000 to $100,000 depending on the population. Grants are non-competitive, application is simple.

“CalAPP is a quadruple win,” said Jeanine Cotter, president and CEO of Luminalt, a Bay Area solar installation company. “Every day we spend a lot of resources getting permits for our customers to use solar energy. By encouraging cities to adopt best practices in permitting automation, CalAPP will reduce costs for building departments, installers and customers, leading to more rooftop solar, which in turn will reduce global warming emissions.”

SB 379 was co-sponsored by Environment California and SPUR, introduced by Senator Scott Wiener and co-sponsored by Assemblyman Al Muratsuchi. It was signed by Governor Gavin Newsom. The full text of the law can be found here here.

“With record heat stressing the state’s electric grid, the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy has never been more urgent,” King said. “The signing of SB 379 into law marks an important step in expanding access to clean, renewable solar energy across California.”

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