SolarAPP+, an online permitting platform, has so far processed more than 4,700 permits representing 31.3 MW of new solar energy since it was launched last May by the U.S. Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory.
Nine communities in Arizona and California have adopted SolarAPP+, according to NREL. Four communities are piloting or testing the app, and a pilot testing the app's ability to review installations combining solar with on-site storage is underway.
Although the app is still limited to permits for residential rooftop solar, work is underway to both speed up the online permitting process, and to expand it to other types of solar installations, according to Amber D'Ottavio, vice president of product management at software developer Accela.
While adoption of NREL's online solar permitting platform SolarAPP+ remains concentrated in California and Arizona, it's success to date in those areas demonstrates the potential of automated permitting, according to software developer Accela.
Released in May 2021, SolarAPP+ enables solar installers to complete applications for permits online and automatically checks those applications for errors, potentially reducing permit wait times from weeks to hours. Municipalities that have integrated the app into their permitting process have so far issued more than 4,700 permits, including 335 permits for solar with onsite storage via a pilot program currently underway. Tuscon, Arizona, is currently in the lead with 2,133 solar permits issued via SolarAPP+, according to NREL.
"This is just the beginning of this concept of automating the review process," D'Ottavio said. "We have a handful of agencies that have implemented it so far, but taking all their success stories...I think we will see other agencies adopt this."
Customer feedback has led both Accela and NREL to co-develop intermediary software that allows SolarAPP+ to be integrated directly into the permitting process, D'Ottavio said. Currently, applications completed in the app must still be downloaded and then delivered manually to the permitting authority. The new API will take data collected by SolarAPP+ and input it directly into an agency's application, saving further time and reducing errors, D'Ottavio said.
Work is also underway to expand the app so that it can process applications for other kinds of solar installations, such as solar panels that aren't installed on a roof or installations on commercial buildings, D'Ottavio said. Including utility-scale developments in the app remains an aspiration, D'Ottavio said, but there's currently no timeline for when the app may include utility-scale features.
D'Ottavio believes there is significant potential for automated permitting processes to reduce wait times and costs and accelerate the deployment of clean energy. But some barriers to adoption remain in place, including the lack of standardized permitting processes, even within a single jurisdiction.
"What it comes down to is you have to standardize in order to do automated approval," D'Ottavio said. "For a jurisdiction without any standard, you have to have a person look at each one. Any local jurisdiction that wants to standardize—it opens doors for them to be able to automate."