June 18th, 2010

The Unseen Torture of PV Integration in Mass: Waiting for Rebates, Permitting, & Inspections.

BOSTON -

If Kimbo Slice signs a contract with an installer/integrator for a 5kW PV system on his house in MA on Monday, and it takes 2 days to install 5kW, why should Kimbo not be able to turn on his system on Thursday?

A. Commonwealth Solar Rebate Approval: 4-12 week wait

Kimbo knows that he can get up to $5,000 in grant money from the Commonwealth Solar II (CSII) program, which makes his investment cost-effective. What he might not know is that the CSII program prohibits installation prior to the grant being awarded or rejected, per section 3.3 of the CSII program manual.

I’ve dealt with this first hand, having applied for hundreds of rebates through Alteris Renewables Inc. since February 2009. The uncertainty causes issues with (1) equipment purchasing & forecasting, (2) cash flow predictions, (3) project scheduling delays, and (4) risk of losing the building permit application fee.

B. Building Permit Approval: 1 – 4 week wait.

Building Permit applications are the most painful part of any project, mainly because:

  1. Most inspectors have no idea what a PV system is or what constructing it entails. Therefore, before they grant their approval, they demand more and more backup documentation. More time dealing with building inspectors equals less profit for the project. >> Solution: The BBRS should mandate training for local inspectors on the new technology and the equipment used for installation.
  2. Every MA Building Department has a different application and process, and many haven’t upgraded their basic internal technology. Somerville uses legal-sized carbon copy applications. Waltham won’t accept anything but handwritten card-stock applications.  Every town has a different application, and a different process. This means (1) installers must drive to simply obtain the applications, and (2) the town won’t accept digital versions of the applications. >> Solution: The BBRS should have a standard building permit application that is accepted by every municipality in MA, just like RI does. They should also

C. Commissioning (officially turning on the system): 1-4 week wait

In order to turn on a system, the electrical inspector signs a form, the installer submits it to the utility, and the utility authorizes system commissioning. You’d think that this part of the process would be a piece of cake – the system is finally built and able to be turned on, but paperwork can easily hold up project close-out for a couple weeks. Here’s why:

  1. Most MA Inspectors often only work part-time. This adds more wait time to both reaching the inspector, and scheduling an inspection. Note the link above, showing Harwich, MA inspector’s hours: 8:30-9:30, three days a week. Good thing Kimbo doesn’t live in Harwich.
  2. MA Inspectors are uncomfortable with PV technology, so they often request (1) the electrician, (2) the construction foreman, (3) and the homeowner to be present. This creates a huge headache for installers trying to coordinate all these people’s busy schedules, and accommodate for the inspector’s schedule. If the inspector blows off this meeting (probably one in ten jobs), the process starts all over again.
  3. The MA Interconnection Tarriff allows utilities ten business days to authorize system commissioning. This is absurd. If NSTAR can send me an approval in 24 hours, why does it take National Grid or Unitil a week and a few reminders to do the same thing?

Sadly, a PV project sold today can only be turned on as fast as it can jump through all of these bureaucratic hoops. But, if you’re a salesman, how do you tell Kimbo that he has to wait not three days, not four, but 180? You don’t– it’s easier (and probably safer) to sell him on the best-case scenario, and pray that the project clears every hurdle.

The solar industry should place more priority on decreasing wait time due to paper processing. All the efforts to stimulate and grow the solar industry mean nothing until the system starts producing clean energy. The polar bear’s iceberg will have melted due to climate change (if that’s what motivates you) in the time it takes Massachusetts to mess around with all this paperwork baloney. Not to mention that delays create irritated customers like Kimbo Slice. Refuse to accept “bureaucracy is what it is” as an excuse for inaction. This is a real roadblock to the success of the solar industry.

Please comment if you have any thoughts, ideas, or reactions. Thanks,

Miles

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Miles Ryan

About Miles Ryan

Miles Ryan is currently becoming an expert on SRECs (Solar Renewable Energy Credits) in Washington DC. For 1.5 years Miles was the regional Operations Manager for Alteris Renewables where he managed 85+ active commercial and residential solar projects in Eastern MA, Southern NH, Rhode Island, and Maine. Miles coordinated directly with electric utilities, state rebate agencies, local building departments, solar financing firms, install crews, and customers.

  • Solar Guy MA

    This article is right on point! In addition to needing a structural stamp on most projects some homes need hundreds or thousands of dollars of structural upgrades to ensure that the system remains attached to the roof. We have found many projects that we could not build with much disappointment to us and the customer.

  • Solar Guy MA

    This article is right on point! In addition to needing a structural stamp on most projects some homes need hundreds or thousands of dollars of structural upgrades to ensure that the system remains attached to the roof. We have found many projects that we could not build with much disappointment to us and the customer.

  • http://www.thegreenlightdistrikt.com Chris Williams

    Solar Guy,

    Thanks for the comment and why the secracy?!?!

    Engineering does seem to be an issue, I've heard down in Florida with hurriances and out west with earthquakes that it can be interesting as well.

    What percentage of jobs can't get done due to engineering? Perhaps it should be built into the building code that roofs need to be 'solar ready'?

    Chris