How New York Is Hindering Solar Energy

New York's Complicated Permitting Process is Hurting the Growth of the Solar Industry

With his Reforming the Energy Vision plan, Governor Cuomo is making the push to wean the state of its fossil fuel dependency and generate 50% of its electricity from renewable energy sources by 2030. Solar energy is an essential part of this plan, and through programs like NY-Sun the solar market has expanded, growing 575% since 2011. But despite tax incentives and the long-term financial benefits of making the switch, rooftop solar panels remain something of a rarity in New York. Too often it is not the cost of installment that is deterring homeowners, but rather the seemingly infinite number of steps that must be taken before installation can even begin.

First, a homeowner must contact the Department of Building (DOB) and Con Edison to procure a solar installation permit. If the installation interferes with existing fire codes they must then reach out to the Fire Department (FDNY). Incomprehensibly, the FDNY does not accept applications electronically and will not be able to do so until as late as 2019. Then the DOB has to come out to inspect the building, but specifying a time for inspection can be frustratingly difficult. After all of that, applying for a property tax abatement, which would reduce taxes on a solarized property and is a major financial incentive for solar, is a whole separate process.

In the past, there has been no standard permitting process across the state’s 1,550 municipalities, and the varying local processes result in project delays and additional costs. Not only is the overly complicated permitting process scaring homeowners away from solar energy, it is also costing those who do decide to switch more money. A study on the impact permitting has on the cost of solar found overly complicated local permitting and inspection adds $2,516 to each residential installation. Standardizing the process can make solar affordable for 50% of American homes and deliver the equivalent of a new $1 billion solar subsidy over 5 years.

There have been positive improvements. The DOB has cut the permit wait time from 4-8 weeks to only 2. To encourage homes and businesses to install solar, there have been 26 community Solarize Campaigns across the state so far. These locally organized outreach efforts work to make solar easier and more affordable. Due to the Solarize Westchester campaign, the county was able to add panels to over 200 homes. Campaigns ranging from the Finger Lakes region to Albany have started with similar success by simplifying the process for consumers and providing clear information about available incentives and financing options for solar.

Governor Cuomo did make an effort to streamline municipal permitting processes across the state with the NYS Unified Solar Permit in 2013. But acquiring a solar permit remains extremely difficult. The current bureaucratic processes need to be rethought to ensure permitting does not hinder the growth of the solar industry so New York can reach its renewable energy goals.