Virginia county struggles to streamline troublesome solar allowing course of – Energy Information Community


Eric Ohnstad’s quest for rooftop solar turned such a convoluted odyssey that the 54-year-old Prince William County resident figured he can be retired or able to relocate by the point his array powered up.

And he was removed from alone.

Other owners throughout the sprawling Northern Virginia county have given up on their pursuit of solar due to molasses-like timelines.

A balky software web site, higher-than-average allowing charges, and nitpicky evaluations requiring a number of plan submissions had paralyzed so many solar firms {that a} handful had already ceased doing enterprise there.

Some who persist cost prospects extra per watt simply to cowl the price of these additional bills.

Ohnstad reached out to his first solar developer in February 2022, barely two months after transferring into his new home within the Haymarket neighborhood.

At the time, he was unaware of an open secret — the county of 484,000 residents ranked because the worst solar allowing jurisdiction within the state, based on calculations by native solar advocates. 

Solar United Neighbors (SUN), an advocacy group energetic in Virginia, and the Chesapeake Storage & Storage Association (CHESSA), a Mid-Atlantic commerce group, had already spent a number of years nudging county officers to simplify tedious allowing necessities and enhance transparency.

“Residents would complain to us about the installer,” mentioned Aaron Sutch, director of SUN’s Mid-Atlantic area. “It’s not the installer, it’s the permitter.”

That cajoling led to some marginal enhancements “that at the end of the day is lipstick on a pig,” Sutch mentioned.

By digging right into a federal Solar Trace database, SUN confirmed that Prince William’s median solar allowing charges of $586 is greater than double that of 4 different surrounding counties, the place charges vary from zero to $200.

As nicely, between 2018 and 2021, solar allowing took longer in Prince William than it did in Arlington, Fairfax, Stafford and Loudoun counties.

Credit: Solar United Neighbors / Courtesy

Wade Hugh, who directs the county’s Department of Development Services, readily admits that the system is much from good. He’s additionally emphatic that the county shouldn’t be attempting to stonewall rooftop solar, as that may be out of alignment with sustainability targets set by county authorities leaders.

Hugh defends the progress staff have initiated to this point to make clear guidelines and streamline the appliance course of to be user-friendly. For instance, staffers have added how-to movies and checklists to the web site.

“We’re all learning as we jump into a new arena,” he mentioned about including residential solar evaluations to his division’s duties.

To refine it additional, he and different staffers started brainstorming with 5 solar builders in early December as what he’s christened the Residential Solar Process Improvement Team.

“I figured we would show our level of commitment by rolling up our sleeves and getting to the heart of the issues,” he mentioned about month-to-month conferences that may lengthen by way of August. “We’re willing to put the time in. It’s a way to educate the industry and open their eyes and our eyes.”

Hugh, a county worker for 27 years, famous that each SUN and CHESSA declined invites to ship representatives.

Sutch mentioned the latest spherical of discussions appeared like a useless finish after a collection of digital conferences and trainings that started in December 2020 bore so little fruit.

“It became apparent that was not only a waste of our time and taxpayer money, but also a disingenuous tactic to check a few boxes instead of a bona fide effort to fix a broken system,” he mentioned.

Last December, that mounting frustration prompted SUN to ask frazzled owners to take part in an Action Alert. It inspired residents to ship letters to each their native county board supervisors and to the editors of native newspapers. 

Ohnstad and several other dozen others have adopted by way of by voicing complaints.

“We no longer have time for a conversation,” Sutch mentioned in regards to the ongoing marketing campaign. “It’s time for serious action. We’re not going to hold back.”

A numbers recreation?

Hugh stands by the rooftop solar knowledge he has compiled, though advocates query the validity of his data.

Installations, which stood at simply 14 in 2016 and 19 in 2017, leapt to triple digits, 149, by 2018. Except for a 2020 setback brought on by the pandemic, they’ve ramped up at a gentle clip. 

Through the tip of November, county reviewers had authorized 842 solar plans submitted by builders final 12 months.

“I’m not sure how many have been installed,” Hugh mentioned, including that allows to construct a system had been issued for simply over half — or 442 — of these purposes inside 19 days of being submitted.

Another 254 tasks had been greenlighted inside two months — on a developer’s second strive. Each repeat submission provides roughly $100 to the allow price.

Ideally, builders want permits inside a month for the sake of effectivity and to maintain set up prices near the estimate supplied to owners. They normally stroll away when the wait extends to 5 months.

One of their chief gripes with Prince William is that delays and dear resubmissions for the 2 required permits — one structural, the opposite electrical — draw the method out. 

Ray Masavage, proprietor of Prince William-based CAVU Solar, has put in residential arrays throughout Northern Virginia since 2018.

“I always have to explain to homeowners here in the county that this is going to take a while,” he mentioned. “No job goes through without at least one resubmission because something else always comes out of left field.”

While Hugh is proud that his figures present his workers OK’d 83% of tasks submitted final 12 months inside a two-month window, he admits to being dissatisfied that 17% — 146 tasks — had been resubmitted a number of occasions as a result of reviewers repeatedly cited both design flaws or failure to comply with digital submission directives.

“There’s clearly a problem,” he mentioned in regards to the delays. “I need to do a better job and get my arms around what is going on.”

Nolie Diakoulas, who heads up 10-year-old Virginia Beach-based Convert Solar, expanded his enterprise’ attain statewide three years in the past as solar boomed.

However, he not caters to potential Prince William prospects as a result of the hurdles proved fixed and insurmountable. 

“I don’t want to disparage the county,” Diakoulas mentioned. “They’re probably just stuck in their ways. But we have a small operation and we don’t have the bandwidth to work in their parameters.”

For occasion, he can settle for the $130 payment for submitting an preliminary software. However, that complete escalated to upward of $500 when the payment for allow pickups was tacked on.

Addressing allow flaws the county cited turned too costly and time-consuming, he mentioned. The price ticket for every new resubmission was near $100 and likewise despatched the appliance to the again of the evaluate line. 

When these primary prices escalated to $1,000 or larger, it was too huge of a monetary hit for an set up to be worthwhile.

Diakoulas and the house owners of different littler outfitters mentioned the county is a greater match for Ion, Tesla and different massive firms with entry to a cadre of inner system designers, engineers and different specialists.

He additionally emphasised that the county doesn’t appear acquainted with rooftop supplies or tools. For instance, installers shouldn’t must submit security requirements which can be obtainable on frequently up to date specification sheets as panel expertise evolves. 

“You don’t hear about roofs collapsing or fires from solar panels in the county,” he mentioned. “I inform individuals we’re mainly placing a glorified deck on the roof.

“I try to understand when the county says ‘our rules are our rules,’ because they protect the people who live there,” Diakoulas mentioned. “But you can only lean on the safety crutch for so long.”

‘Regulators, not Atilla the Hun’

For Hugh, nonetheless, security, and never enjoying favorites, are paramount.

“We treat everybody fairly,” Hugh mentioned, including that enormous and small solar builders obtain equal consideration. “We’re regulators, not Atilla the Hun.”

He famous that the county follows and enforces state constructing codes.

“Whether it is a garage, deck or a huge data center, we review those plans against codes,” he mentioned. “The goal is to find code deficiencies.”

On the residential solar entrance, his staffers have to make certain a roof can deal with a particular structural load and that owners’ and first responders’ lives are by no means jeopardized.

“It’s not us versus them,” he mentioned. “It’s not us saying, ‘We get to make the rules.’ Our satisfaction is making sure all of this is done safely.”

Hugh is conscious installers have gripes with Prince William charges as a result of some surrounding counties have eradicated or considerably lowered such costs. Next door, Fairfax County has dumped software charges to decrease limitations to solar.

Every jurisdiction does issues in another way, he mentioned, including that his division being a fee-based company isn’t his name.

“That’s a political decision for the board to make,” Hugh mentioned. “The county supervisors would have to say these fees will be covered by the general fund.”

Aid by way of solar app?

Sutch’s group and quite a few builders have inspired Prince William to standardize and streamline the rooftop allowing course of by adopting SolarAPP+, a software developed by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

The software is deployed extensively in California and Arizona. Virginia cities resembling Richmond, Culpeper and Harrisonburg are testing it on trial runs. 

Hugh is open to the thought. A nationwide commerce group, the Solar Energy Industries Association, gave his workers a SolarAPP+ briefing in December.

Still, he mentioned he’s cautious of counting on software program that might miss errors or overlook potential hazards.

On the opposite hand, Diakoulas mentioned it could be “fantastic” for Convert Solar and different smaller operations if Prince William warmed to the appliance.

The conversion would enable “everybody to be on the same page” as a result of the software program integrates with present authorities laws, automates plan evaluations and monitoring and supplies remaining signoff for inspections.

“It’s a solution that would allow Prince William to be a solar leader in not just Virginia but in the whole Mid-Atlantic region,” Diakoulas mentioned. “All the dominoes would fall in the right way, which would be quite amazing.”

Ohnstad, a protection contracting guide, whose anticipate solar lasted nearly a 12 months, additionally urged the county to be receptive to SolarAPP+ in a collection of January letters to newspaper editors and authorities officers.

The house owner’s drawn-out solar saga prompted him to compile his personal figures. He estimates that the county’s residential solar penetration charge is nicely underneath 1% of 117,000 eligible houses.

“At the current permitting rate, it’ll take centuries to reach full solar adoption,” he mentioned. “This rate is shameful because it’s self-induced.”

Let there be solar in Haymarket

Ohnstad’s contract together with his first solar installer fell aside final spring. The county’s multi-month refusal to approve a constructing allow due to a disputed roof deficiency so irritated the developer that the corporate walked away from that job — and Prince William.

Enter Masavage.

The nimble and decided proprietor of CAVU Solar lastly gained the mandatory permits after inheriting Ohnstad’s venture in August. Masavage’s crew put in Ohnstad’s 10-panel, 5-kilowatt array in early January.

“I don’t know why Prince William has to go to this degree over very minor things,” Masavage mentioned. “It’s just a nightmare.”

Ohnstad is tickled that Masavage persevered — and that he’ll have the ability to “flip the switch” to energy from the solar any day now after just a few free ends are tied up. 

“I think of it as just paying my electric bill for the next 10 years up front,” he mentioned about his anticipated return on funding. “But that’s not why I had it installed.”

Instead, his “why” is his teenage daughter.

“We have an existential threat called climate change. I want to do everything I can for her to have an environment somewhat similar to what I have.”

Next up? He’s intent on increasing his array to accommodate the electrical car, induction range and warmth pump he envisions in his cleaner, greener future. 

That possible would require a number of county permits. So, no, he isn’t holding his breath.


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