Why Improving Local Solar & Storage Codes Brings Us Closer to a Clean Energy FutureThis article was originally published on the blog of the Interstate Renewable Energy Council (IREC) on August 25, 2020. It describes the launch of the U.S. Department of Energy grant that expanded SEAC from a California-centric group into a national organization addressing clean energy codes and standards issues in all states.
Imagine your company designs and installs solar PV systems and energy storage systems. In your current project, you’re designing a freestanding solar array for a customer that will shade a parking lot. While you’ve designed countless PV systems in this customer’s area and are familiar with the local permitting requirements for standard projects, you’ve found that the code is somewhat unclear about expectations for these kinds of “solar shade structures.”
You follow the guidelines to the best of your ability but worry that ambiguity in how the code applies to this particular project could result in your permit request being rejected, leading to project delays and a frustrated customer.
Alternatively—put yourself in the shoes of the local building official tasked with signing off on that project. As the official responsible for interpreting the code and certifying the safety of the system this company plans to install, lack of clarity in the code concerns you as well, and it makes your job harder.
Now, multiply these kinds of challenges across the over 20,000 different jurisdictions in the U.S. responsible for permitting and inspecting clean energy systems and you can see how clarity and consistency in codes has a significant impact on the amount of time and effort (and therefore cost) it takes to get a clean energy project installed. These factors are also critical for ensuring high quality, safe installations.
The permitting and inspection process for clean energy systems is a key area where there are opportunities for reducing “soft costs”—the non-hardware costs, such as labor and administrative tasks, that comprise over 60% of the cost of a solar installation and have been slow to decline.
Fortunately, a new project, supported by the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Energy Technologies Office, aims to solve this challenge by bringing together diverse stakeholders—including members of the clean energy industry, code officials, and others.
A New Initiative Unites Stakeholders in Finding Solutions
Under this three-year grant, project participants will identify areas where greater clarity is needed in local codes for solar and energy storage projects and then work to develop consensus-based recommendations that Authorities Having Jurisdiction (AHJs)—such as local building and fire departments—around the country can adopt.
The Sustainable Energy Action Committee (SEAC)
The project builds upon a strong foundation of work by the Sustainable Energy Action Committee (SEAC). Since its founding in California in 2015, SEAC has provided a forum for collaboration on guidelines for implementation of codes and standards for permitting and inspection of renewable energy systems.
SEAC brings together Authorities Having Jurisdiction (AHJs) (AHJs), contractors, manufacturers, suppliers, utilities, testing labs, and other clean energy stakeholders for collaboration and problem solving related to solar PV installation and energy storage projects.
Historically, SEAC focused on work in California. Now, with federal funding, SEAC is expanding into a national forum for this work and will specifically tackle challenges for solar and energy storage projects around the country.
A Coalition of Respected Partners
IREC serves as the administrator of SEAC, facilitating the project work under the new grant. Other key partners include the International Association of Electrical Inspectors (IAEI), International Code Council (ICC), UL LLC, International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF), National Association of State Fire Marshals (NASFM), Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), U.S. Energy Storage Association (ESA) and California Solar & Storage Association (CALSSA).
Representatives of these organizations will comprise the SEAC Steering Committee, which will oversee and direct SEAC activities.
Open Participation and Balanced Representation
Participation in this project will be much broader than the official partner organizations, however. SEAC will hold monthly meetings open to the public, where all interested stakeholders can participate and share code and permitting challenges.
Additionally, representatives of all stakeholder categories (see list at right) will be appointed to a voting body: the SEAC “Assembly.” The Assembly will vote on all SEAC recommendations, positions, best practices, and publications to determine whether they are approved. No single interest category will be allowed to comprise more than a third of the Assembly to ensure balance.
SEAC will hold monthly meetings open to the public, where all interested stakeholders can participate and share code and permitting challenges.
How Will This Project Develop Solutions?
In order for solutions generated by SEAC to be trusted and widely adopted, we believe there must be broad participation from individuals across all parts of the clean energy industry. With that in mind, this project was designed to be inclusive and ensure engagement from diverse groups at all stages:
Identifying & Prioritizing Needs with Stakeholder Input
To determine the code and permitting issues that are most important for SEAC to work on, the project will begin by conducting a broad survey of stakeholders on the code enforcement and permitting issues they believe would benefit from SEAC efforts. With this information, the SEAC Steering Committee will prioritize the identified issues.
Inclusive Working Groups Develop Solutions, Respond to Feedback
The Steering Committee will recruit working groups to research and propose solutions for the identified code and permitting challenges.
Preliminary solutions developed by SEAC Working Groups will be voted on by the Assembly. When voting “no,” Assembly members will be required to provide comments explaining their concerns so that the Working Group can refine its recommendations based on feedback.
The Working Group will respond to all “no” votes and revise recommendations as needed before they are voted on again by the Assembly. Recommendations that receive a two-thirds majority vote in their favor will be adopted by SEAC.
Sharing Recommendations and Best Practices
SEAC will share all of its recommendations, as well as other relevant educational materials, on its website which will serve as a clearinghouse for sustainable energy code enforcement and permitting issues. Leveraging the networks of project partners, SEAC will publicize its consensus-based recommendations to increase the adoption of these solutions.
Often when code enforcement and permitting challenges are encountered in daily work, particularly when there is pressure to meet project deadlines, there is limited opportunity for stakeholders such as solar installers and code officials to share ideas and collaborate on solutions that would make codes more effective for all parties involved.
This project provides a unique, dedicated space for diverse groups to collaborate on solutions. SEAC’s structure as a consensus-based organization that gives all clean energy stakeholders a voice will ensure that recommended solutions have broad buy-in and are beneficial to the sector as a whole.
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