- Chad Laurent, Vice President and General Counsel, Meister Consultants Group
Chad Laurent described the growth of the solar energy industry in the U.S., as well as the context and background of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) funded SolSmart program. Different jurisdictions can be subject to quite different costs for rooftop solar PV installation, as well as non-monetary costs, such as permitting time, shortfall in the number of designated installers, and other issues with electrical utilities. While the costs of rooftop solar PV hardware is the same in the United States as many other locations in the world, there are major disparities in the associated soft costs, including utility connectivity, permitting, and installation. High upfront costs are recognized as a major barrier to increased solar installation.
There are numerous actions that municipal governments can take to help reduce the soft costs associated with installing rooftop solar PV. These include changes to zoning and permitting processes, better coordination with first responders and with the local utility (for net metering), among other recognized best practices. These actions help cities move away from being flow-reducer for installed solar, and help provide certainty to the local industry. The SolSmart program supports municipalities in adopting these best practices. It also offers technical assistance and a rating system, where municipalities brand their community’s commitment to enabling solar installation.
Participants asked many technical questions about community solar projects and how municipalities could better understand the soft costs associated with solar panel installation. One participant also wondered whether or not the communities enrolled in SolSmart have been tracked over time; the answer was not yet, although 20 communities were granted funds to enable their participation in the program, and as part of that grant, are responsible for tracking outcomes. Some tracking will be possible at the conclusion of the municipality’s funding window.
Several participants asked questions about the applicability of the SolSmart soft cost reduction strategies to the development of community solar projects. Indeed, community solar is seen as key, as based on U.S. numbers; up to 70% of residential utility consumers cannot install rooftop solar PV, because they rent rather than owning their own homes. Different jurisdictions may have different legal tools or barriers to negotiate in developing community solar projects, but these are not necessarily addressed within the SolSmart program. Further discussion included opportunities to translate the success of the SolSmart program outside of the U.S., as well as the applicability of the program’s model to other technologies.
The session closed with a discussion of the future prospects for the SolSmart program, given the changes being made in the DOE by the Trump administration. Future funding is very much unclear, but Laurent clarified that the current budget will extend until 2020.