Permits for home solar installation: what you need to know
Want to generate your own electricity? You're going to need a permit for that - and maybe several.
If you plan to install solar panels on your home, in most cities you will require at least one permit for the project. In many cases, you’ll need multiple permits.
That’s not surprising: solar panels involve electrical and structural work, which are usually regulated by local or state codes. You’ll also need permission from your utility company, unless you plan to go completely off the grid. If you live under a homeowners association, you might need their blessing too.
Finally, some state or local solar incentives require that you file an application before the start of the project.
Whew! That’s a lot of red tape. Fortunately, your solar installer will take care of most the paperwork. The federal government is also trying to streamline solar permits to help accelerate the transition to renewable energy.
It can be quite a confusing tangle. Thankfully, your installer will take care of most or all of them. Even so, you may face project delays because of this. Here’s a guide to what you need to know about solar permitting.
What is the authority having jurisdiction?
When it comes to permits, your solar installer might make mention of the Authority Having Jurisdiction (AHJ). This is local authority - usually a city or county government - that issues the electrical, building, or solar permits that are required for your project.
There are tens of thousands AHJs in the United States, and working with them and knowing the requirements for your solar project can be a real pain. This is one reason why doing your own solar installation can be a daunting challenge.
Home solar installations that are interconnected to the grid involve substantial electrical work.
Power from the solar panels will be converted to AC power and fed into your electrical panel. Sometimes, the electrical panel will need to be upgraded to handle the peak current coming from the solar array, especially for larger installations.
The utility meter will be need to be upgraded, and in some cases a second meter will be added.
A manual shutdown switch is also required for any solar installation.
There are also national electrical codes that may apply, including rapid shutdown requirements.
All of this work will need to meet code, and require a permit and possibly an onsite inspection. Depending on where you live, this work may be regulated by city, county, or state electrical codes.
Structural or building permits
Whether your solar panels are rooftop mounted or ground mounted, you will likely need a permit.
For a rooftop system, the panels will be bolted to the structure of the roof, placing an additional load on it. You might live in a region where meeting snow, wind, or seismic loads are part of the building code, in which case the effect of solar panels will need to be considered.
For example, solar panels can essentially act as a sail in high winds, placing a significant amount of lifting force on your roof. Your installer will need to ensure that these loads are within the load capacity of your roof.
Most cities will require a permit for this and possibly an inspection. For example, my installation in Buffalo required an onsite visit from a structural engineer, who poked around in my attic and delivered a report to the installer that was needed before the project could continue.
If you’re going with ground mounted solar panels, you’re going to have a structure in your yard that is attached to a foundation. Again, many local authorities will require a permit and possibly an inspection from a geotechnical engineer to make sure that the soil can support the weight of the solar array.
Some cities have fire codes that limit where solar panels can be placed.
For example, the state of California requires that there must be two clear 36-inch wide pathways along the edge of the roof where solar panels can’t be placed. These fire setbacks exist so that firefighters can get on the roof and cut holes into the roof if ventilation is needed.
This is a California-wide requirement. In other states, local authorities may have similar fire codes too. In my city, fire setbacks are a municipal code.
Utility interconnection approval
Unless you have an off-grid cabin, your home solar system will be interconnected with the grid. This means that your home will both receive electricity from the grid, and sell back any excess solar electricity you aren’t using.
You will need approval from your utility company in the form of an interconnection permit. Your solar installer will apply for this on your behalf. This process could take weeks or just a few days, depending on your utility.
Dedicated solar permits
In some cases, local authorities may have specific solar permits that cover the electrical, structural, and other work that would otherwise require multiple permits.
Do you live under a homeowners association?
Homeowners associations can determine what colors you’re allowed to paint your house and whether you can decorate your lawn with pink flamingos. They can also dictate whether you can have solar panels on your home.
A majority of states have laws that prevent HOAs from completely restricting homeowners from installing solar panels, but HOAs can still retain some authority, such as influencing the placement of the panels on the roof.
Getting the necessary approval from your HOA can be a lengthy and painful process, even where solar access laws exist. For some tips on how to navigate this, read my article on homeowners associations and solar panels.
Some solar incentives require an application process
Unlike the federal solar tax incentive, some local incentives involve an application process. Often, the agency issuing the incentive wants to see the project plan or receive copies of electrical or other permits.
For example, the EnergySmart Colorado incentive requires the homeowner to complete a home energy assessment and submit a copy of the final electrical inspection and a line drawing of the system before the incentive will be approved.
New York state’s NY-Sun home solar incentive program has significant documentation requirements as well.
Instant permitting may be coming to your city (hopefully)
As you can see, meeting the requirements of local building, electrical and fire codes, getting approval from your utility company, and obtaining permits for all of this can be a significant pain and add delays and costs to your project.
In fact, as I write this, my neighbor has been waiting for months from the city for approval for their solar installation. The panels are installed and most of the electrical work is done, but they need final approval from the city before their system can be turned on.
Situations like this are why the federal Department of Energy created SolarAPP+, an instant permittimg process that can allow a solar application to be approved on the spot. Cities that use the SolarAPP+ software and adopt the standardized process it uses can eliminate the wait time for applicants. An application will either be approved instantly, or the applicant will be told what requirements are missing.
At the moment, 27 communities are using SolarAPP+. Check out the list to see if yours is included.