The Solar Ombudsmen Part II: Expanding Their Successful Approach to Solar in New York State

Arlene Haas, JD

Posted by Arlene Haas, JD

Solar_NewYork_2.jpgThe City University of New York’s (CUNY) Solar Ombudsmen are helping New York State reduce solar installation soft-costs and increase the adoption of solar. A Progressive Approach to Solar in New York: The Solar Ombudsmen Part I discussed the Solar Ombudsmen’s change methodology and work in New York City. Now, we will take a look at how the CUNY Solar Ombudsmen have expanded their work to assist other municipalities in New York State.  

Reforming the Energy Vision and NY-Sun  

New York State’s Reforming the Energy Vision (REV) and NY-Sun initiatives are an important backdrop to the Solar Ombudsmen’s statewide work. In 2014, the state began the REV initiative in response to New York’s aging infrastructure, greenhouse gas emissions, technological advances and an electric system that is no longer reliable due to increased demand and extreme weather events. REV is intended to redesign the electricity distribution system and foster more competitive electricity markets. As part of the REV initiative, there are currently a number of electricity related regulatory proceedings before the New York Public Service Commission.

The NY-Sun initiative has become an important component of REV and was launched in 2012 as a pilot program to expand the use of solar in New York State. In April 2014, Governor Cuomo extended NY-Sun to 2023 and authorized the spending of $1 billion over ten years to help meet a statewide target of 3 gigawatt installed capacity. NY-Sun brought together New York State’s existing solar programs to facilitate coordination and funding for expansion, including NY Solar Smart, a program to decrease solar soft-costs.

NY Solar Smart and the CUNY Solar Ombudsmen’s Accomplishments

New York State, a home rule state, cannot mandate that municipalities adopt a uniform and expedited photovoltaic installation permitting process. Although some states have legislated changes to solar installation permitting, New York State needed to find a different approach. Based on their success in New York City, the CUNY Solar Ombudsmen were asked to work on a plan to decrease solar soft-costs in New York State and lead the NY Solar Smart program.

The Solar Ombudsmen guide four different NY Solar Smart Working Groups that are organized around different topics as they apply to the state:

  1. Permitting and interconnection
  2. Net-metering and interconnection standards
  3. Financing options
  4. Planning and zoning 

NY Solar Smart Survey   

The NY Solar Smart Survey, released in January 2014, was an important step in the process of reducing statewide rooftop solar installation soft-costs. Sustainable CUNY and the Solar Ombudsmen surveyed local jurisdictions throughout the state about their permitting and inspection processes, as well as related issues such as zoning, interconnection, net-metering and financing.  

The survey documented great variation in municipal permitting policies and processes which supported the need for a statewide unified permit. In addition, due to the finding that many municipalities required several redundant inspections, the survey report recommended one all-inclusive inspection to reduce costs. Similarly, the report suggested that the application requirements for permitting, interconnection and incentives be aligned so, for example, the same plans and diagrams can be used for each step in the approval process.  

NYS Unified Solar Permit

Sustainable CUNY and the Solar Ombudsmen guided the development of the NYS Unified Solar Permit for rooftop residential and commercial photovoltaic installations of 12 kilowatts or less. The model permit uses an expedited permitting process that combines both the building and electric permit.  

The unified permit requires permit determinations be made within fourteen days of a completed application’s receipt. When inspections are required, there should only be one inspection that takes place within seven days of a request for inspection. Included in the permit form is a checklist to establish eligibility for the expedited permitting process.

The goal is for the unified permit to be adopted by local jurisdictions throughout the state, except in Nassau and Suffolk Counties where the Long Island Unified Solar Permit is used. Instructions are available to help each municipality customize the NYS Unified Solar Permit. 

Permit Guidelines for Municipalities

Procedures for municipal adoption of the NYS Unified Solar Permit are outlined in the Jurisdictional Guide to Permit Adoption, including recommendations for the review and formal approval of the unified permit’s use by the necessary entities within a local jurisdiction. Municipalities are encouraged to make the unified permit web-accessible, and the guide describes the types of information that should accompany the permit on a municipal website.

The Jurisdictional Guide for Permit Adoption requires any municipality that desires to alter the unified permit to submit documentation justifying the changes. Review is required in order to check that the goals of the expedited permitting process are preserved with the alterations for a particular jurisdiction.

Incentives and Assistance for NYS Unified Solar Permit Adoption

Importantly, the Solar Ombudsmen did not stop at simply designing the NYS Unified Solar Permit. To encourage the permit’s adoption, municipalities that commit to using the permit are eligible for a financial incentive from the New York State Cleaner, Greener Communities program. A municipality may apply for an Implementation Grant of $2,500 for a population of 30,000 or less, or $5,000 for a population of more than 30,000.  

The Solar Ombudsmen are available to advise local jurisdictions on using the NYS Unified Solar Permit and its related procedures. Sustainable CUNY also provides workshops for municipalities considering adoption of the unified permit.

Moving Forward

The Solar Ombudsmen have successfully led the adoption of the NYS Unified Solar Permit. Close to 100 jurisdictions in New York State, including those on Long Island, are using an expedited permitting process. Sustainable CUNY and the Solar Ombudsmen continue to work on the NYS Unified Solar Permit’s adoption by additional municipalities, as well as other initiatives that support the use of solar in New York State. This includes identifying solar financing options and improving the state’s solar mapping capabilities.

The work of Sustainable CUNY and the Solar Ombudsmen serves as an important model for jurisdictions across the country trying to remove barriers to photovoltaic installation.

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