OP-ED

Statewide solar permitting will remove regulatory barriers

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The state’s annual “Clean Energy Industry Report” from the Office of Energy Resources (OER) just came out, and it is once again filled with great news. There are now an incredible 15,000 jobs in the clean energy sector, a 66 percent increase since just 2014. In fact, Rhode Island was recently ranked 4th in the nation by the Union of Concerned Scientists for its clean energy policies.

It is important for Rhode Island to maintain this leadership role, so I was excited to hear about the recent goal announced by the Governor to achieve 1,000 new megawatts of clean power for Rhode Island by 2020. The challenge for us in the General Assembly is to make sure that as many of those megawatts are being produced locally as possible.

I’ve been proud to be a part of recent legislative efforts to reduce the red tape that can sometimes get in the way of installing solar panels, sponsoring and co-sponsoring legislation to streamline permitting of solar projects.

Soft costs, like permitting and licensing, can account for as much as 64 percent of the total expenses of a solar project, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Navigating the various state and local permitting requirements is time consuming and burdensome, particularly for small solar developers with limited resources. That is why last year I co-sponsored a law requesting that OER prepare a report that examined opportunities to streamline the permitting process associated with solar photovoltaic (PV) installations and provide legislative recommendations in order to reduce these soft costs.

OER convened a stakeholder group with over 20 members to examine the issue and found that the current permit process is one of the unknown costs for installers, varying from municipality to municipality. Both an electrical and building permit are required. The report recommended simplifying this existing permit process and providing a known, fixed cost. Streamlining the permitting process will provide reliability and predictability of costs, while reducing the time installers spend acquiring permits. These savings will, in turn, mean more time and money focused on increasing customer adoption and deployment of newer technologies.

Last year’s bill and the resulting stakeholder process have now turned into Senate Bill 562, creating a statewide solar permit, which has now passed the Assembly and been signed into law. This new law will enable OER to develop the final rules for the statewide solar permit. I am very proud to be one of the sponsors of this legislation, and I want to thank Senators Erin Lynch Prata and Joshua Miller, both from Cranston, as well as Chairwoman Susan Sosnowski of South Kingstown, for their leadership and support on this important issue.

Beginning January 1, 2018, the law will replace the burdensome existing building and electrical permits for solar installations. It will include all solar PV projects in the state regardless of size. Additionally, the permit application and process should be separate and distinct from zoning processes with only one solar permit per project, regardless of size, and a clear fee schedule for the cost of the permit. Importantly, the permit process should allow municipalities to decide what the internal process of the permit will be.

Statewide solar permitting will bring predictability and streamline the solar permitting process. It’s a great start to making it easier for every Rhode Islander to enjoy the economic and environmental benefits of solar power. It is essential to continue to reduce non-hardware costs and lower barriers in order to foster growth in the clean energy sector, if we’re going to meet our ambitious goals. I look forward to continuing to work with OER and other state agencies and stakeholders on soft cost reduction for the solar industry.

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