Solar panels at the University of Illinois. (Photo by Adam Gimpert via Creative Commons)

The City of Chicago has solar resources on par with most other Midwestern and even some southern cities, but historically has seen few solar installations (less than 500 total rooftop solar PV installations as of 2012, for a population of 2.7 million). In 2012, a team of organizations met to discuss how Chicago could better take advantage of the national transformation and growth of the solar energy market. Chicago had not participated in the US Department of Energy’s (DOE) Solar American Communities program or other solar market transformation efforts. Several Illinois clean energy advocacy organizations were already working with local and state policy makers and utilities to improve the regional market for solar investment. In response to the Rooftop Solar Challenge -Phase I solicitation under the DOE’s SunShot Initiative, these organizations assembled a team, including the City of Chicago, and formed a proposal to transform the City’s time-consuming and multi-tiered regulatory processes for solar installations into a single-day zoning and permit approval process for designated “standard” solar installations. Chicago joined with Commonwealth Edison (or ComEd, the City’s sole electric utility provider), the Environmental Law and Policy Center, the Illinois Institute of Technology, and West Monroe Partners to create a streamlined permit process, reduce soft costs, improve the visibility of solar potential, and encourage new solar development.

At the end of the year-long effort, as Chicago hosted 15,000 solar industry professionals at Solar Power International in McCormick Place in 2013, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel launched the Chicago Solar Rooftop Portal website, an online portal enabling contractors to get a solar building permit in a single day. Additionally, ComEd launched an online interconnection and net metering applications submission and tracking portal in response to the effort’s process recommendations and solar contractor feedback workshops.

Subsequent to the 2013 launch, the City continued to enhance its expedited process in 2013 and created a new “solarize” program (called Solar Chicago) to draw in consumer interest and capture additional cost savings via bulk purchase and contracting. Solar Chicago, along with the streamlined permit process, increased the number of solar installations almost 500% over the next year. Chicago and other stakeholders are now working to leverage the Illinois Power Authority’s 2015 Solar Renewable Energy Credit (SRECs) acquisition into new solar energy infrastructure, and launch Chicago into the burgeoning regional rooftop solar market.

Approach

In this context, the Chicago Rooftop Solar Challenge team set a transformative goal of creating a predictable process for rooftop solar installations that would reduce the permit fee to less than $300 and allow a one-day turn-around on the issuance of building permits. The process started by Chicago’s Rooftop Solar Challenge team convening discussions with stakeholders to identify real and perceived obstacles to installing solar energy systems in Chicago. Stakeholders included City staff in both the building code and the planning and zoning departments, solar contractors and manufacturers, advocates, residential and commercial building owners, and the City’s electric utility. Through these discussions the City and its partners identified thresholds within Chicago regulations and standards for when an expedited process could be used without compromising safety and health standards behind building code standards, and without changing design or community character goals and policies. The process allowed for several iterations of the final expedited process guide.

The discussion and technical review addressed technical issues such as structural wind-loading requirements, making Chicago’s structural standards for solar energy installations consistent with national standards used by racking and component manufacturers. The standards also distinguished between flat and pitched roof installations, recognizing some of the unique characteristics of Chicago’s building stock. Setting clear and predictable structural standards for all building types allows contractors to accurately issue estimates and eliminate unnecessary engineering reviews or structural modifications.

The review also considered land use and community character standards that might be affected by solar installations. The city identified an “as-of-right” solar installation under its zoning and design standards for both residential and small commercial properties. To make the review process transparent, the City created guidance documents that provided visual examples and textual descriptions of permitted designs and locations.
The City moved the entire solar permitting process under the jurisdiction and administration of the Department of Buildings, so that a single individual could walk a permit through all reviews. Contractors do not need to engage multiple departments with differing time schedules to install a qualifying residential or commercial solar energy system.

In October of 2013, Chicago announced the completed Solar Express process at the Solar Power International convention. The web portal guided contractors and consumers through a predictable process for installing solar energy systems, setting separate processes for small and large rooftop installations.

In 2014, the partnership worked on an Online Interconnection and Net Metering Enrollment tool to be launched by Commonwealth Edison to allow applicants to submit, track, and pay for applications through an online platform. The net metering process, working with both Commonwealth Edison and the City’s primary alternative supplier Integrys, enables applicants to connect their solar generator to the grid and receive credit on their bills for producing their own electricity.

In 2015, Chicago is participating as a “Beacon” city in the Grow Solar Partnership, covering a three state region (Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Illinois). Chicago will continue to assess the successes and the new opportunities for soft cost reduction and assist in promoting its successful soft cost reduction effort as other Illinois cities work to adopt best practices. Chicago will also be working to link its solar and sustainable building goals to new state initiatives including the ongoing deployment of smart grid technologies and the Illinois Power Authority’s SREC competitive procurement process.

Accomplishments

  • Creating a one-day permit review process that significantly reduced “soft costs” of solar installations by adapting solar permitting national best practices to local conditions. Qualifying residential installations can get a permit within a day, a dramatic improvement from the pre-program average of 30 days.
  • Creating a single gateway for solar permits within Chicago’s regulatory system, administered by the Department of Buildings.
  • Development of a solar zoning guide that clearly identifies the as-of-right solar installation standards for residential and commercial building owners.
  • Training permit staff and inspectors in solar technologies and building and electric code requirements.
  • Reducing building permit fees for basic solar installations to $275.
  • Training architects and contractors in the new expedited permit process. Chicago held trainings for over 100 design and construction professionals on the new processes to encourage sustainable buildings and renewable energy.
  • Increasing private sector solar installations through the “Solar Chicago” bulk-buy and marketing program. Annual installations increased from approximately 30 to almost 200 during the program’s tenure.
  • Participating in stakeholder-driven state policy initiatives to develop additional solar market transformation programs.
  • Developing the Chicago Solar Express web-based solar development portal for consumers and contractors. The portal details the solar development process for small installations, commercial installations, and provides a contractor checklist to ensure a transparent and predictable installation process.

Lessons Learned

  1. National best practices can be successfully adapted to a wide variety of local conditions. Chicago’s building and zoning codes evolved independently of national or regional code process, and were considerably distinct from other Illinois cities, and even from other cities elsewhere in the nation. If the national solar permitting and zoning concepts can be made to work in a complex and unique situation as seen in Chicago, the best practices can be made to work in other less complex situations.
  2. Removing regulatory barriers and complexity does not, by itself, spur market activity. Regulatory barriers and complex permitting add to the “soft costs” of solar installations, but streamlining the process is only one component of an overall market transformation program. Lowering soft costs does not necessarily result in greater consumer demand.
  3. If possible, address soft cost reduction and market lift efforts at the same time. Engaging stakeholders for the purpose of soft cost reduction can lead to frustration when the process is complete and no increased market activity is apparent. The launch of the Chicago Express portal did not (as noted in #2) result in a flurry of solar installations, until Chicago conducted its successful Solar Chicago market development initiative.
  4. Allow for modifications to the initial expedited permit process. No matter how complete the initial expedited process is, implementation will reveal details that need to be addressed subsequent to the launch of the program. Moreover, as consumers and contractors become familiar with the process, the process can be improved by incorporating additional opportunities such as better integration of the utility and city inspection process, or adding to the building types that are covered under the expedited process. The “Solar Chicago” solarize program generated a large number of applications that did not result in installations, but did reveal new opportunities for market transformation and regulatory streamlining.

Involved Parties

  • City of Chicago
    Joseph Aaron, Deputy Sustainability Director, 312-744-5053, Aaron.Joseph@cityofchicago.org
  • Environmental Law and Policy Center
    Sarah Wochos, Senior Policy Advocate, (312) 795-3711, swochos@elpc.org
  • West Monroe Partners
    Jeff Smith, Principal, 312-846-9949, jsmith@westmonroepartners.com