free energy

Efforts increase to drive down solar costs

Add another voice to the call for cheap solar.

SunRun, a San Francisco-based solar installer, has released a report that says simplifying permitting would drop costs another notch.

"Our research identifies inconsistencies in local permitting as one of the most critical roadblocks to a sustainable, subsidy-free solar industry,” said SunRun CEO and co-founder Edward Fenster in a statement.

The report, "The Impact of Local Permitting on the Cost of Solar Power," said a federal effort to create consistency among the multiple regulatory levels could make getting solar power affordable for half U.S. homeowners.

The U.S. Department of Energy already launched its SunShot Initiative, a challenge meant to transform the marketplace. The agency wants applicants for the $12.5 million available to achieve "measurable improvements in market conditions for rooftop photovoltaic across the United States" through streamlined and standardized permitting and interconnection processes.

And in California, San Jose Mercury News reporter Dana Hull says the nickname Governor Sunbeam better suits Gov. Jerry Brown (as opposed to Governor Moonbeam during his last stint in office) after he announced his policy to get the state "to produce 20,000 new megawatts of renewable electricity -- enough to power 20 cities the size of San Francisco."

Commercial scale projects, meanwhile, are in the wings. In the sun-drenched San Joaquin Valley, about 94 projects spanning about 64,000 acres have received a clean bill of health from wildlife regulators.

And at the same time, manufacturing costs have fallen to about $1.50 per watt and are expected to continue that descent into the $1 range. The Snowmass, Colo.-based Rocky Mountain Institute says costs could be further reduced to between 60 and 90 cents per watt if its recommendations are followed.

The institute also listed an uneven permitting landscape. Solar installers say that and interconnect fees, the requirement by utilities to hook up more remote solar sites to the grid, also can be expensive and variable.

Gov. Brown's intent is to generate 60 percent of his target through "localized electricity," Hull writes. Those would be systems like rooftop solar or others that don't require new power lines -- and thus no interconnect fees.

The SunRun report says Germany, France and Japan have eliminated permitting for basic residential installations with Germany's installed costs the lowest in the world and 40 percent lower than the United States.

The report estimates local governments can save $1 billion over the next five years. It says solar installers nationwide identify local permitting as the most stubborn cost they face and say it adds 50 cents per watt, or $2,516 per residential install. Reasons are due to wide variations in processes, excessive fees and slow submittal and inspection processes.