Renewable Energy SmartPod

SolarAPP+ Takes Off

August 03, 2021 SmartBrief Season 1 Episode 10
Renewable Energy SmartPod
SolarAPP+ Takes Off
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

Across the U.S., there are 23,000 separate jurisdictions and 3,000 utilities involved in the permitting process for residential rooftop solar installations. Completing the permitting process can take weeks -- or even months. SolarAPP+ is a new tool that can be put to use across the country to reduce that wait time to just minutes. The app is a game-changer. Homeowners receive faster installations and installers enjoy greater certainty about scheduling their projects. Plus, all those government agencies involved in the permitting process can use the tool for free.

Arthur Coulston from the SolarAPP Foundation and RMI joins the show to explain how the Energy Department, particularly the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, collaborated with various solar industry stakeholders to make SolarAPP+ a reality. Coulston also details how some of the lessons learned via the launch of SolarAPP+ can be applied to other renewables endeavors, like the development of electric vehicle (EV) charging station networks.

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(Note: This transcript was created using artificial intelligence. It has not been edited)

Sean McMahon  00:08

What's up everyone and welcome to the renewable energy smart pod. I'm your host Sean McMahon, and my guest today is Arthur Coulston, the chair of the SolarAPP Foundation, Arthur's here to talk about SolarAPP+, which is a recently launched app that's going to go a long way towards streamlining the permitting process for residential rooftop solar installations. Anyone with an interest in residential solar, from homeowners and installers to people who work at the government agencies tasked with handling permits, is going to want to hear how SolarAPP+ is a game changer. Oh, yeah. And the apps also totally free. 

Before we hear from Arthur, just a quick heads up about some episodes we have coming up in the next month or so. We're going to have not one but two episodes that focus on green hydrogen. There have been lots of headlines lately about green hydrogen. So I'm going to be talking to Janice Lin from the Green Hydrogen Coalition and Michael Ducker from Mitsubishi Power. to hear more about the promise and potential of green hydrogen. I'm also going to be talking to Michael Rucker, the founder and CEO of Scout Clean Energy to hear his insights on trends in the renewables industry. 

 
And now, a quick message from the sponsor of today's episode: Infor. 

Infor is a global leader in industry specific cloud applications to support critical business needs. Infor solutions are tailored to meet the needs of wind and solar generation asset owners. More than 350 utilities organizations rely on enforce cloud-based ERP solution to ensure their assets and infrastructure are safe and reliable. 

 

Hello, everyone. And thank you for joining me. My guest today is Arthur Coulston, he is the chair of the SolarAPP foundation and he also works for RMI. Arthur, how are you doing today? 

 

Arthur Coulston  

I'm doing good. How you doing? 

 

Sean McMahon  

I'm doing great. Before we get into this talking about the solar app, tell me more about you. How did you end up where you are? How did you come to chair the foundation and things like that? Well,

 

Arthur Coulston  02:06

you know, I got involved in climate change and renewable energy advocacy in college back about 20 years. And then around about 10 years ago, got into industry, I was one of the co founders of Mosaic, the solar financing company. And my role was in software and product and and then through startup world and software world ended up working on this, this permitting issue and and the solar plus project trying to to just kind of continue to drive solar adoption and improve solar for for people and bring it to more people.

 

Sean McMahon  02:47

That sounds awesome. So yeah, let's get into it. What is SolarAPP+? And how does it work?

 

Arthur Coulston  02:53

So SolarAPP+ is a software tool. It was funded by the Department of Energy, the kind of coalition that's been working on, it's been led by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. And the software automates the permitting process for home solar, and storage systems. It is adopted by those cities and counties. Those are the jurisdictions that are in charge of permitting United States and empowers them to offer instant and online permitting for solar, often they don't have the tools to do that. And so it's a software tool that makes it easy for them to do that. And easy for contractors and installers in that those areas to pull those permits instantly online and make that process better for everyone.

 

Sean McMahon  03:40

So, you said they can pull the permits instantly, like before the creation of SolarAPP+, how long was that permitting process taking,

 

Arthur Coulston  03:47

You know, the average in the United States was coming down is around five, but many, many jurisdictions were weeks and months. And you know, more than just the long timeframe was often the uncertainty of the timeframe. So even in jurisdictions where they've made some progress in improving those timeframes, when they saw solar adoption go up that of course, increased demand for those permits, and then their permitting time, blinds would go up, right at times when you'd be hoping that they'd be going down. And so, you know, that jump from a couple of weeks to instant is is huge and has a huge impact on the cost for those contractors on the experience for the customers. But equally so it's just the certainty of it so that solar customer knows, okay, I'm going to get my solar system as soon as I order it, or shortly after and the contractor can assure them that that's going to happen and not have this waiting game that often really creates a less than ideal experience for customers and you know, drives a lot of cancellations, a lot of unhappy customers, and a lot of pain for installers suppliers. Financing companies, the banks and other companies that are actually putting money into financing solar. It's a pain for everybody.

 

Sean McMahon  05:09

Yeah, it sounds like it. So you mentioned earlier the jurisdictions and the utilities. So I just want to fact check something with you, you know, I was doing some prep for our conversation. And I saw that there in the US, it says that there's 23,000 jurisdictions, and 3000. utilities. Is that accurate?

 

Arthur Coulston  05:26

Yeah, yes, it is. And, you know, a lot of those are very small. But it really, that's how in the United States, the law works, you know, these local communities have the authority to enforce what gets built and how it gets built in their communities. And so you end up with, you know, in the United States, a real patchwork of different processes, different rules. And while there's been efforts to improve on that, to standardize, these jurisdictions are limited and the resources they have and the technology, their aptitude for technology. And, you know, you, you end up with everything from places where you need to print out multiple copies of your plans and take them in to a to an actual office and wait to, you know, some who have been able to go on online, and offer those permanent process online, but often not automated. And so what we found, when we were starting this project was there really only a handful of those that had implemented instant processes. And those were very, very large jurisdictions that had more resources, you know, like LA, Las Vegas, places that had the resources and a big enough solar market to justify the cost of doing this and SolarAPP+, is making it free for those jurisdictions to now do this so that all the smaller jurisdictions, and less resource jurisdictions can do the same thing that those leaders too.

 

Sean McMahon  07:07

So are you telling me that, you know, before SolarAPP+, if I was a solar installer, I had theoretically 23,000 different permitting processes, not only like, doing the paperwork differently, they said online or multiple copies, but also seeking different data points?

 

Arthur Coulston  07:24

Yeah, yeah. So you might have, not only might they be having different code year building code years, that they've that they're enforcing, but they may have additional local restrictions that they've put on top of that, and even having different, you know, priorities in terms of that enforcement. And so you, you would have, you know, jurisdictions that are maybe more relaxed in their enforcement next to jurisdictions that are more aggressive in their enforcement. And, you know, even though 20,000 to 23,000, sounds like a lot, you would actually even get potentially different experience based on which, you know, staff person you got, your application happened to get before

 

Sean McMahon  08:15

You get, like, you know, the slick person is operating and get in a day or two, and if you don't, you're waiting weeks, even within the same department, the same jurisdiction,

 

Arthur Coulston  08:23

Yeah, probably not a bit, that affecting the timeframe as much but but just, you know, what they prioritize and, and their enforcement. And so none of that is to blame these jurisdictions, they have a hard job to do, you know, and the, these are new technologies, they're changing fast, the codes are updating all the time. And, you know, solar is not the only thing that they're dealing with, you know, they, they're, they have refrigeration equipment, and laboratories and building, you know, apartment buildings getting built in, you know, roads and bridges and infrastructure. And, and they have to keep up with all of that, and ensure that it's safe and ensure that it's all, you know, done in a way that is, isn't putting people at risk. And, you know, it's a hard job. And so it's that it's understandable, you know, what they, the challenge they had in in doing this instantly and automating this. And that's where SolarAPP+ really came in was to really listen to them, build a tool that works for them, and we'll help them provide, you know, the best possible permitting. It's not like they, they want to be in that in the way of those solar projects. They, they're just trying to do their job.

 

Sean McMahon  09:44

So let's expand on that for a second. So obviously, I can see the appeal for installers here. You know, they want to get stuff quickly and done. But what was the launch process like are what stakeholders at the table because I presume the audience for this are the folks at those city and county You know, agencies that are approving all these things. So when you guys created this, like, how did that go? What was the process? Like? I understand there are some pilot cities just walk me through that.

 

Arthur Coulston  10:11

Yeah. So, you know, in in designing the the software and in particular, the code compliance check that is built in that software. We did a ton of research in to what local jurisdictions were doing, particularly the sort of leading and innovating jurisdictions, we involved, you know, organizations that are involved in code creation and enforcement, so NSPA, ICC, UL, and we brought all of that wisdom together and all the learnings from, you know, the last decade of solar permitting, and to have baked that into the requirements for the solar app software. And we talked to and listened to a lot of jurisdictions and started doing early testing with jurisdictions where they were starting to test solar up alongside their current permitting process. And then in late last year, with Pima County, Arizona, Tucson, Arizona, Pleasant Hill, California, and Menifee, California, we kicked off a pilot, and so that these were the first real permits being issued through solar app. And we did that in those communities with half of their permitting volume going through solar plus and half of their permanent volume going through their normal process, which really allowed us to look at, you know, what, are we having an impact, and we did see a big impact. How much time is it saving the jurisdiction, how much time it is saving the installers, and be able to compare side by side that it's actually is effectively enforcing the codes the way that they want to, and, and those have been highly successful. And those jurisdictions have turned into some of our biggest spokespeople and proponents in helping to bring this to more jurisdictions. And so we just recently came out of that phase, and officially launched solar app and now are available to jurisdictions to to adopt more, more broadly. And we're seeing a big boost in interest. And and that's a good thing. So we're actively working to get more jurisdictions up and running using it.

 

Sean McMahon  12:33

And the app is free, right? I mean, a lot of these jurisdictions, budgets are tight. And so let me just plug it, it's free for them to use this app. Right?

 

Arthur Coulston  12:40

Yeah. So it was important that it was free to the jurisdictions, you know, one there, there, they don't have a lot of resources. It's also gets really complicated for them to procure software that costs a lot of money. It's also funded by the federal government. So the idea was to be building this as a resource and a tool for local jurisdictions. And it's currently funded by Department of Energy money funding, and long term will be funded by a small fee to the installers. And so when installer applies for their permanent solar app class, they pay us a small fee for that, and that is intended to sustain the project long term.

 

Sean McMahon  13:20

And the installers have been happy with it, the feedback from them from the pilot projects has been strong and positive.

 

Arthur Coulston  13:26

Yeah, absolutely. You know, I think when they experienced for the first time and do their first application, there's a bit of a learning curve, you know, it's a different process and what they're used to. And so some of the requirements and solar plus are, they're essentially the same information that might be in a plan set, but because the solar industry was so organized around creating these plan sets, you know, the, that there's a bit of a learning curve to shift then to providing that data in a essentially as data rather than within a visual plan set. And so, once that, installers learn it, and they kind of get the benefits, yeah, huge benefit to them. And we're seeing enthusiasm, mostly just when when will this be available in my community? And when will it be available in more communities? And so maybe some impatience on their part, but that's a good thing, because it's encouraging everyone to move as fast as possible.

 

Sean McMahon  14:30

Yeah, it's always good to have demand. Right. Yeah. So I also but I imagine from the installers perspective, a lot of this energy transition has been talked about jobs, jobs, jobs. And so, you know, streamlining This is the ultimate goal that like, okay, they can just do more business install more systems, because they, you know, he said the the certainty and the timeframe for the permits, as shrunk almost, you know, nothing, practically. I mean, is that the excitement on the, on the behalf of the installer?

 

Arthur Coulston  14:58

Oh, yeah, you know, accelerating growth, you know, and along with that jobs and all these positive economic impacts from this industry, you know, what we've seen over the last 10 years is, you know, the price of solar coming down, and that driving adoption up and when solar, you know, gets far enough below the cost of grid power in a market, that market explodes, and by continuing to make efforts to bring down these costs, will open up new markets will accelerate adoption and existing markets. And while the solar industry has been able to do amazing process improvements in other parts of the solar process, so, you know, today, you can get a proposal for home solar and storage, in a matter of minutes, pretty much. And you can get a pre approved or an offer fully approved for financing instantly online, you know, from the comfort of your couch. And that wasn't possible. 10 years ago, the solar industry has made that possible with tons of innovation and amazing entrepreneurs like driving all that change, then that, after all of that amazing customer experience of like, wow, that was easy, well, then it gets hard, and then you're waiting weeks and months to get your solar installed. And so it's it's these processes that any one solar company or one solar entrepreneur, like can't solve on their own, because it's, it needs to be a collaboration between government and industry, it needs to be a collaboration between all of the industry partners, all these different government partners. That's how we have to solve that part of this process. And it's just been very stubborn and hard to fix. But solar plus is making amazing progress. I really believe this is a solution. And if we can do what we've done to financing and, you know, sales and these other parts of that solar process to permitting, I think we'll see significant cost reductions as we did as we were improving those other parts of the process.

 

Sean McMahon  17:14

That sounds amazing. And I can definitely feel what you're saying in terms of, you know, the sales and financing piece of the solar ecosystem being really kind of optimized because as you can imagine, like, because of my job, a lot of my internet searches and web stuff is solar, solar solar. So I get bombarded with all the ads. Just because you know, they're tracking what I'm doing. And so all kinds of amazing offers for now. Now Now you can sign up now for free and all that stuff.

 

17:41

We'll be right back.

 

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Sean McMahon  

And now, back to my conversation with Arthur Coulston, chair of the SolarAPP foundation. 

 

I do want to kind of just circle back to the cost. You mentioned the cost I was driving, it's been coming down and down and down, because all these improvements in other aspects of the solar ecosystem. So where do cost compare right now in the US with with other jurisdictions? Do you have any numbers on that?

 

Arthur Coulston  18:37

Great question. So you know, depending on where you look, you see slightly different numbers. But consistently, what you see is in some of these countries with consistent national permitting programs, you know, Germany, UK, parts of Europe, Australia, you see cost around half, sometimes two thirds, you know, half of what they are in United States. And you know, there's other factors there. But it's hard not to see permitting as part of that, because it's one of the biggest differences between us and those those areas. And so we really think it's going to drive a significant chunk of that soft cost reduction that we need to achieve. You know, interconnection plays a part. There's some other things at play. But the permitting really has these these other effects because of how it affects that time between sale and installation. And sometimes interconnections are part of that. But for the most part, it's permitting that causes that delay and causes that uncertainty. And so if we can shrink that down to nothing, and also along with that, get consistent rules, consistent expectations, and bring that to many jurisdictions so that the industry can build processes and automations, around that expectation, I really think we'll see the US starting to come down closer to some of those other markets. And if we could achieve anything close to that, it would be a game changer United States, because we are already seeing solar booming. And so to bring it down another, you know, 50 cents a watt or something, it would be a huge accelerator for for the industry.

 

Sean McMahon  20:29

And also, I understand, I mean, you probably know this that equity, you know, not financial equity, but like societal equity has been in the spotlight in the renewables industry. So, I mean, it's got to help on that right, driving down the costs, it's gonna make it more available to everybody. Right?

 

Arthur Coulston  20:43

Yeah, you know, when we've seen that trend happen, as well as the cost come down. So you know, 10 years ago, the demographics of people were getting solar systems were, you know, often higher incomes, and focused on communities of higher income. And you can see why the, you know, the soft costs tend to be comparable, across system sizes. So the smaller the system size, the more these have an impact, you know, permitting on a $10,000 system, it has a bigger impact than if it's a 30,000 or $40,000. system. And so, as those costs have come down, we've seen a real trend for more solar in communities of lower middle income. And you know, all the cities we talked to this is a huge priority. When you're talking to cities about solar, yes, they want their climate goals, yes, they have renewable energy adoption goals. But they also are really concerned about about equity, about making sure that solar is accessible to more people have different incomes in their community and costs. Any way you can bring down costs is going to kind of help with that. And we've seen that in the data.

 

Sean McMahon  21:59

That sounds Excellent. So for the app, SolarApp+, the + wasn't always there. Talk to me about that. I understand it's the storage piece. So how did that kind of get added on? And what do you see in the marketplace for that?

 

Arthur Coulston  22:11

Yeah. So even earlier in the project, we knew that storage was going to be a part of this, but we really started to feel like it was important to convey that and, you know, the plus was added, so you know, solar app, plus, the initial rollout was for solar PV, we're now testing a battery storage systems. And with the expectation that, you know, that will be broadly available later this year. And, you know, the trends that then you're seeing is that increasingly, solar systems are having battery storage included with them, you know, previous photovoltaic customers are adding storage to their their systems. And, you know, if those trends continue, I think you'll see a large, certainly in some markets, a large proportion of solar systems, including battery storage, because customers want it adds a lot of value for them. And it often adds a lot of value for utilities and for other players in the system and makes communities more resilient. People more more resilient, in the face of fires and power outages and storms and flooding and all these things that are, you know, really part of the motivation for folks to want to get this in this in their homes.

 

Sean McMahon  23:33

What are their pain points are out there for the deployment of rooftop solar, I know that this is a sounds like an amazing tool to kind of bring cost down and you know, make it more available to everybody. But there are other parts of the process that you know, whether you're tackling them right now or not, that you just aware of that could use some focus.

 

Arthur Coulston  23:49

Absolutely. So we focused on permitting for the solar plus project. interconnection is another huge challenge that varies across all these utilities, we actively talk to a lot of the folks working on that problem as well. And that there's, we're seeing opportunities for synergy there. So our hope would be that in a couple years, these processes are are both improving first in parallel, but then starting to sink together, where you might see you know, data being able to be passed between the permanent process and then the connection process so that they both can be automated and both can be consistent. And in line. So you know, interconnection needs improvement as well. And then you know, these consistently the solar industry has to pick the home solar industry needs to fight these battles of you know, net metering and utility rules and ensure that it's a fair playing field for you know, residential, solar and in that isn't going away and it's going to be a continued challenge for this industry. But again, anywhere we can lower costs, it takes the pressure off those other parts. And so you know, if, say net metering rates get slightly worse somewhere. If we've managed to significantly lower other costs, you know, we might sustain a market that otherwise would have been lost.

 

Sean McMahon  25:23

Yeah, we've covered the whole net metering debate here on an earlier episode that was, you know, pretty popular. I think a lot of people it wasn't on their radar screen, but but now it is. What's next for you? And the foundation? I know, we talked about other things, other pain points, you see, but what about stuff? specifically? The You know, you're aiming to tackle or is your mission right now to kind of just drive expansive adoption of SolarAPP+?

 

Arthur Coulston  25:45

Yeah, I mean, that's my main focus. And, you know, that the focus of the solar app foundation is, you know, to see this, this project to success. And, you know, we consider, you know, where we've gotten to to be a big achievement, but it, it won't have the impact we want to have until it's broadly adopted by many jurisdictions, you know, the solar market is largely focused in a couple of 100 jurisdictions. So we were hoping to, and we have goals to reach hundreds of jurisdictions over the next year or two. And we're confident we can do that. It's going to be a lot of work. But, you know, that's our, our main focus, you know, personally, I'm interested in seeing that success happen. But I also, you know, there's other parallel efforts that I'd really love to see be successful. You know, I mentioned the interconnection process, I'm very interested in that, you know, and there's similar challenges with, you know, like Evie, chargers, charging stations and other parts of this clean energy infrastructure that needs to be deployed incredibly rapidly this decade. And if we don't fix some of these, you know, bottlenecks in regulation for all of that infrastructure, we're not going to be able to deploy it fast enough. And so I'm very interested in that and involved in conversations around those related efforts. I think there's a possibility that there'll be learnings from solar plus that are applicable to those other issues.

 

Sean McMahon  27:17

So are you saying that learnings from SolarAPP+ will be used for the permitting process for things like EV charging stations?

 

Arthur Coulston  27:23

Yeah, absolutely. There's a lot of parrot, there's some differences. But there's some parallels and a lot of the same challenges, you know, many jurisdictions, different rules, rapidly changing technology that it's hard for these jurisdictions to keep up with. And I think a lot of room for creating tools and best practices that can be adopted across jurisdictions. And it's a very similar conversation happening in that space, I think, a little earlier than the than where we're at with SolarAPP+, but it's very important. Well, that

 

Sean McMahon  27:57

Sounds great. Anything else you want to add or tell our listeners about? You know, just,

 

Arthur Coulston  28:02

I always like to everyone in this, this space, I like to just thank them for, you know, all their hard work. And there's so many amazing people driving innovation and working their butts off to drive solar adoption and fight climate change. And just a big thank you to everyone for all they're doing.

 

Sean McMahon  28:23

Thank you, Arthur, and everyone on the team to kind of help create the solar app. Plus, it sounds like it's gonna be an awesome tool that hopefully, like you said, will be deployed in jurisdictions far and wide. I appreciate your time today. Thank you very much. 

 

Arthur Coulston  

Thank you. 

 

Sean McMahon  

And now it’s time for the PodBrief segment of the show and I want to add one comment about the conversation Arthur Coulston and I just had about SolarAPP+. It’s really easy these days to poke fun at the dysfunction of the federal government … big government messes up everything, right? And how many quote Infrastructure Weeks have there been? It’s a joke. But the SolarAPP+ is an example of that very same big government partnering with the solar industry and other stakeholders to create a tool that is going to help everyone. Homeowners will see their systems installed faster. As Arthur explained, solar installers will benefit from more certainty about the timelines for their projects -- which will hopefully allow them to add jobs jobs jobs so they can complete more installations. And the government agencies that handle permitting are getting a killer new app … for FREE.  

The Department of Energy via the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, played a key role in making SolarAPP+ a reality. Remember that the next time you hear someone criticizing the supposed dysfunction of big government.

 

That’s our show for today. I wanna say one final thank you to our sponsor: Infor

 

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The Basics of SolarAPP+
How Fast Does SolarAPP+ Work?
Optimizing a Tool for 23,000 Jurisdictions
Pilot Programs with Local Government Agencies
Powering 'Jobs, Jobs, Jobs'
Enhancing the Solar Customer Experience
Driving Down the Cost of Solar
Shifting the Demographics of Solar Customers
The + in SolarAPP+ is All About Storage
Applying SolarAPP+ Lessons to EV Charging Networks
PodBrief: A Win For "Big Government"