SolarAPP FAQ

GENERAL

What is SolarAPP?

SolarAPP is short for Solar Automated Permit Processing. SolarAPP is an online Web portal that automates the plan review and process for issuing permits to install code-compliant, residential photovoltaic (PV) systems. Based on model building and electrical and fire codes, SolarAPP automatically performs a compliance check of the inputs supplied by the solar contractor to ensure the proposed PV system meets code requirements. The system also produces an inspection checklist that can be used to verify installation practices, workmanship, and adherence to the approved design.

Why adopt SolarAPP?

SolarAPP standardizes safety compliance checks by automating them. No more deviation and variance occur due to human touch.

Authority-having-jurisdiction (AHJ) resources are not effective for reviewing and approving permit applications that are incomplete, rife with error, or never reach construction or inspection at all. SolarAPP automates permit approvals for qualified systems and allows local governments to focus on tougher projects and technologies. SolarAPP's compliance checks ensure that safe installations can proceed, while removing stale applications from the AHJ&s workload.

When adopted, the SolarAPP portal will:

  • Be free to pilot and adopt
  • Standardize permit applications and inspection checklists
  • Block noncompliant applications from entering AHJ workload
  • Perform automated plan review with compliance checks, enabling instant approval for qualified systems
  • Provide online fee payment and digital record tracking, if needed
  • Be able to stand alone or integrate with existing government software and inspection platforms
  • Ensure that city and county manual plan reviews and inspection resources are aligned and used efficiently
  • Expand to integrate more renewable energy and smart home technologies, keeping cities up to date with relevant code
  • Incorporate and centralize a marketplace of resources and training materials from code bodies and expert organizations.

Who created SolarAPP?

The SolarAPP initiative grew out of a stakeholder meeting co-organized by The Solar Foundation and Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA®) in the summer of 2018, with the Rocky Mountain Institute as the facilitator. Subsequently, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) secured funding from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and matching in-kind commitments from industry partners (including Sunrun, Tesla, Sunpower, Vivint, Mosaic, SEIA, the California Solar and Storage Association, and the Institute for Building Technology and Safety among others) to develop an online software tool that facilitates automated permit review of residential PV systems. Additional input and review have been provided by the International Code Council, International Association of Electrical Inspectors, National Fire Protection Association, Underwriters Laboratories, and a growing list of local building officials among others.

How was SolarAPP Developed?

The full specifications that the software uses to conduct permit reviews are available for any jurisdiction to review. The specifications were created through a collaborative process by some of the leading subject matter experts in the solar industry and building safety community, including the International Code Council, International Association of Electrical Inspectors, and Underwriters Laboratories. SolarAPP permitting specifications are based on model building and electrical and fire codes, and are cross-referenced to the leading permitting guidebooks from California, New York, and the SolSmart National Simplified Permit Guidelines for Residential Photovoltaic Arrays.

What model codes is SolarAPP based on?

To satisfy the greatest number of jurisdictions, SolarAPP was initially built to the 2017 National Fire Protection Association 70 National Electrical Code (NEC) and 2018 I-Codes (International Residential Code, and International Building Code). Updates are underway to accommodate jurisdictions that utilize the 2020 NEC. As additional code updates are made (such as the 2021 I-Codes and 2023 NEC), these will also be incorporated as options for jurisdictions to select. If you are not on these code years, please fill out the SolarAPP Interest Questionnaire to let us know your needs.

What types of systems are eligible for SolarAPP review?

SolarAPP is designed to provide a code-compliance check for the majority of residential, roof-mounted photovoltaic systems in the United States. To see which systems are eligible, please refer to the Eligibility Checklist. Some of the types of systems that SolarAPP does not currently support include: ground mount, building-integrated, energy storage, electrical service panel upgrades, new construction, and nonresidential (i.e., multifamily, commercial, community, and utility-scale projects). As the software continues to develop, more system types will be incorporated. Incorporating residential energy storage is in progress, and we expect to support solar and storage applications by the end of 2020. Until such updates are made, local AHJs will need to continue providing contractors with a process to submit and review these systems outside of the SolarAPP portal.

How do we start using SolarAPP?

SolarAPP is adopted and implemented jurisdiction by jurisdiction. AHJs interested in demoing, testing, or implementing SolarAPP should fill out our SolarAPP Interest Questionnaire. Contractors working in the jurisdiction will need to set up an account to begin applying for permits through SolarAPP. One account can be used to apply for permits within any jurisdiction using SolarAPP.

Are utility requirements integrated into SolarAPP?

SolarAPP is currently designed for building permit review and not for interconnection. But we intend to expand our partnerships and abilities in the future. Many, but not all, utilities have moved interconnection processing online. Additionally, many utilities in the largest solar markets do not block install, and thus the cost of interconnection processing is often less than permitting. There is still work to do, and one of our partners, the Interstate Renewable Energy Council, is working in this space. If you work for a utility and would like to learn more about automated permit processing, please reach out to solarapp@nrel.gov

How is compliance checked by the portal during the permitting process?

A standard set of questions is asked regarding component parts and certifications, site conditions, installation methods, and more. The portal then references the California Energy Commission equipment lists to perform automated calculations that assess compliance with code requirements to determine if the applicant can proceed to paying their fee and printing the building permit. Specification sheets and listing certifications are required to be uploaded as part of the SolarAPP permit application and verified by the inspector. Application errors and inconsistencies are rejected automatically, and the computer automated program will not let an application through to issuance until it is complete, and compliance is met. All of this conserves AHJ time often spent on corrections, errors, cancellations, and contractor learning curves.

AHJ

Why should our community use SolarAPP?

There are many reasons why local communities are interested in using SolarAPP. A few of the top reasons are that the automated process:

  • Builds consistency around safety enforcement.
  • Frees up building department staff time to work on other projects<./li>
  • Reduces the need for specialized technical training.
  • Improves accuracy and consistency of reviews.
  • Is an efficient way to handle growing volumes of solar permit applications.
  • Is offered at no-cost to the AHJ.

Additionally, SolarAPP has the potential to significantly reduce the cost for a homeowner to choose solar energy, which can result in many more homeowners being able to "go solar" in your community. This results in local economic development, job creation, and environmental benefits as well as additional permit fee revenue.

How much does SolarAPP cost?

SolarAPP is free for local AHJs to use. The initial development of SolarAPP was supported by a grant from DOE to NREL with matching in-kind support provided by solar industry stakeholders. Ongoing maintenance, customer support, technical assistance, and software development are supported by a small administrative fee charged to installers submitting applications through the system.

How does SolarAPP help my community meet our clean energy goals?

SolarAPP is a solution that will reduce the costs associated with permitting residential solar energy systems, thereby encouraging more residents to make investments in controlling their own energy demands and reducing their carbon footprint. Implementing SolarAPP is an impactful way for any community to demonstrate their support for residential solar and the economic development it brings.

Is SolarAPP customizable?

SolarAPP is designed to confirm compliance with model codes and aims to go above and beyond most manual application compliance checks. However, we understand that geographies vary and have therefore built into the onboarding process a questionnaire that seeks nderstand your specific jurisdiction&s needs. Items like local wind speed and snow load, or ambient high and low temperatures are customizable. You can also determine your own fee structure and scheduling inspection process. You may inquire about other options via our SolarAPP Interest Questionnaire.

Will fees be customizable?

Yes. We hope you choose to adopt the SolarAPP default permit fee, but do not want this to be a barrier. Increased economic development and fee revenue for your jurisdiction are important elements of the overarching goals for SolarAPP. Please complete the SolarAPP Interest Questionnaire to identify what fee and calculation method you&d like to use.

How does SolarAPP integrate with existing AHJ permitting software?

SolarAPP is flexible to your needs. SolarAPP can be used in two main ways: (1) as a stand-alone software for processing solar energy systems, and (2) in conjunction with, or in addition to, other software systems. We have identified a simple solution that will enable software integration with minor enhancements to your existing software. Please fill out our SolarAPP Interest Questionnaire to tell us what software you are using and help us explore which integration method will work for you.

Will site plans, electrical drawings, schematics, construction plans, or other documents be uploaded and available for the inspector to use?

Jurisdictions have reported a desire to build better standardization from one contractor to the next. SolarAPP receives information regarding the contractor&s design and puts it into a standardized format given to jurisdictions, so that all contractors will have unified documents. The software creates a checklist for the inspector with site-specific information based on the data submitted by the installer to verify that the installed system matches the proposed equipment and design specifications. Additionally, the SolarAPP Fire Bulletin lays out clearly what guidelines the contactor is attesting to. If the contractor wishes to deviate from these requirements, they will need to go into the AHJ and request a variance. Fire setbacks following the SolarAPP Fire Bulletin will be verified by inspectors on-site.

How does SolarAPP impact my inspection process?

SolarAPP should improve system installation quality, given there is very low risk of human error or deviation from preprogrammed requirements. Additionally, SolarAPP produces a simple inspection checklist highlighting the elements that should be verified during inspection, accompanied by the SolarAPP “long form,” which captures all inputs and calculations done by the program. Inspectors benefit from the comprehensive list of questions asked because it is consistent and produces a simple guide for what to look for in the field. Should an installer deviate from the approved design, this will be discovered at inspection.

What is SolarAPP's impact on staff efficiency?

With SolarAPP, AHJs will be able to handle more volume and focus resources on larger/more complicated projects. Residential solar applications already dominate permitting queues, and adoption is expected to continue growing as it has for the past decade. SolarAPP will accelerate that growth by driving down costs and opening access to residential solar for more households. Furthermore, SolarAPP will do this without added strain on local governments because it will eliminate incomplete, cancelled, and incorrect applications from their pipeline. Applications can be audited without blocking installations, inspections will not be impacted, and failure rates may decline.

How are historical districts or special zoning requirements addressed in SolarAPP?

SolarAPP's software does not currently integrate with a municipality&s zoning and planning requirements databases directly. Two potential solutions include:

  1. Adopt an ordinance to exempt solar from historic and zoning limitations.
  2. Incorporate the detection of these factors based on the intended permit address and to indicate that an additional review is needed. Detection could exempt these addresses from the SolarAPP process.

How are updates, revisions, and equipment changes handled?

Contractors can update and resubmit the permit application. SolarAPP will instantly review the application for compliance again. If compliant, the system will reissue an updated permit and alert the building department with an updated long form and inspection checklist. The tool will also require the contractor to pay any additional fees associated with a revision.

Can the homeowner use SolarAPP to obtain a permit for their own house?

Currently, SolarAPP users must meet state and local AHJ contractor license and/or other qualification requirements to use the platform to obtain a permit. Unless the homeowner is properly licensed and qualified to perform the solar installation themselves as a solar or other approved contractor, they will not be able to obtain a permit using SolarAPP.

Where are permit records stored?

Copies of the permit and associated documentation are emailed to the jurisdiction upon approval from SolarAPP. Options may exist to integrate SolarAPP into communities& record keeping system automatically. You may inquire about other options via our SolarAPP Interest Questionnaire.

Am I able to review SolarAPP applications before the permit is issued?

SolarAPP completes the design review, and any application that passes the compliance check can be viewed prior to issuance. If the contractor attempts to submit an incomplete application or a noncode compliant system, SolarAPP will not allow the contractor to proceed and will not issue a permit. Additionally, if the contractor does not pay for the permit, SolarAPP will not issue the permit.

Is SolarAPP secure?

SolarAPP was developed by NREL, a DOE federally funded research and development center. The system has been designed stringent federal government cybersecurity protocols. If you have particular questions or concerns, please reach out to us: solarapp@nrel.gov.

INSTALLERS

How can I help get SolarAPP adopted in the communities where I do business?

The AHJ community is already showing widespread interest in SolarAPP adoption. We are actively testing the system with a select group of high-volume AHJs and are in the process of queuing communities for piloting. Due to rapidly increasing interest from forward-thinking AHJs around the country, we ask that solar contractors reach out to our team to determine our ability to serve before engaging in advocacy. As we progress, NREL or our project partners will release updates on SolarAPP's impact and will let you know when and where SolarAPP is adopted in 2020–2021.

A jurisdiction that I work in is now using SolarAPP to process permit applications for residential PV. What do I need to know about it?

This is great news! You will now be able to save substantial time and effort in obtaining a permit to install code-compliant residential PV systems in this jurisdiction. Please refer to the SolarAPP Quick Start Guide for Installers Coming Soon! and the SolarAPP Instruction Manual for Installers Coming Soon! for more information on how to set up an account and begin obtaining permits.

How much savings can be expected?

The SolarAPP team estimates that savings of up to $1 per watt, or around $7,000 for a typical residential solar installation, are possible if automated permitting and interconnection processes are widely adopted. The cost of an installation can be broken down into hard costs (costs of the physical equipment) and soft costs, which include design and engineering personnel, sales and marketing, permitting fees, and overhead. While the cost of solar equipment is similar across the world, the total installation cost of a residential system in the United States is two to three times the cost of a similar system in other countries with strong solar markets like Germany. Standardized, automated processes significantly reduce the time and effort associated with obtaining a permit, thereby reducing the overall cost as well.

How much does SolarAPP cost an installer to use?

Installers will pay a small administration fee to use SolarAPP. In turn, contractors will receive instant permits online for compliant applications, saving installers a significant amount of time and effort on every permit processed. Administrative fees will be used to cover ongoing maintenance, customer support, technical assistance, and software development as the product moves to self-sustained commercialization and away from direct support from DOE.

What do I do if the system rejects my application because one of the criteria or requirements are not met?

While SolarAPP has been designed to process the majority of residential solar installations in the United States, there are limitations to what types of systems qualify for the automated permitting process (Eligibility Checklist). Depending on which criteria are not met, you will either need to submit an application using an alternative process required by the jurisdiction, or revise your system design to meet the criteria or code requirements in SolarAPP. In any instance where noncertified components will be utilized or exemptions from code requirements are sought, an alternative permitting application process at the jurisdiction will be necessary.

How do I make changes to approved plans?

After issuance, projects can be revised as many times as the contractor wishes prior to installation. After revisions are complete and the project is submitted, SolarAPP will then run another compliance check. If your updated permit is compliant, the system will reissue your updated permit and alert the AHJ with a revised long form and inspection checklist. If a revision requires payment of an additional fee, the revised permit is not issued until the fee is paid.