In 2007, the City of Madison was named one of 25 Solar America Cities. Since receiving this designation, the City of Madison’s Solar program, MadiSUN, has helped hundreds of businesses and thousands of residents learn more about solar energy, understand their solar production potential and assist with the solar purchasing process. In addition, the City currently owns and operates several solar electric and solar hot-water systems, including solar hot water systems on all City of Madison fire stations. The City is continuing to explore additional options to add more solar to city facilities. In support of improving the local solar climate, the City has also improved the permitting process and zoning codes to encourage solar projects.

In 2012, the City of Madison, in partnership with the cities of Milwaukee and Marshfield and several non-profit organizations including the Midwest Renewable Energy Association was one of twelve recipients of the Rooftop Solar Challenge funded by the SunShot program. The program is part of the Department of Energy effort that aims to reduce the soft costs of solar.

Approach

SolarStruc

SolarStruc is an innovative analytical software package developed by City of Madison staff to calculate rooftop loads for solar installations and streamline permitting on engineered truss roof systems. Unfortunately, little effort had been made to provide installers with the appropriate training on how and when to use this tool.

Using the services of the Madison City Channel, a 38-minute SolarStruc training video was developed featuring SolarStruc’s developer. The training video and the SolarStruc tool are now available online, allowing other jurisdictions to learn how to properly use the tool. As a result, in the City of Madison, installers that properly use the SolarStruc can significantly reduce the time needed to assemble their permit package. Their use of SolarStruc also reduces the time code officials spend reviewing structural information.

Online Permits

When the online permit project began, only over-the-counter submittals were accepted by the City of Madison. Now solar permits can be submittal online. Through coordinated project planning, City IT staff and the planning department launched an online option in 2013. Local solar electric system installers were asked to beta-test and provide feedback before the new online submittal system was widely available.

Furthering Regional Consistency

Both local installers and code officials identified that a major barrier to an expedited permitting process was time spent determining and adapting to the various procedures and specific requirements of each jurisdiction. The City’s approach to improve residential solar PV permitting used techniques based on quality improvement, not individual knowledge or using Dane County (home of Madison Wisconsin) as a test case.

Permitting related data for 27 Dane County jurisdictions was gathered to define the inconsistency problems. The jurisdiction’s approval procedures and other requirements were found to vary significantly. Over half of the jurisdictions, most of the smaller villages and towns, used privately contracted permitting service providers. These private firms, compensated through a fee-for-service arrangement, have less interest in streamlining the procedures.

Individual municipalities were contacted once specific permitting issues and inconsistencies were better understood. Efforts were made to contact code officials, typically building inspectors, but also administrators and community sustainability or environmental initiative leaders.

The nine largest jurisdictions in Dane county (who account for about two-thirds of the county’s population) were invited to create a more standardized and uniform solar regional permitting process. Each jurisdiction was provided with a project proposal, which included a schedule of activities, an estimated deadline and the specified hours of commitment need to complete the project. The activities included attending several trainings about permitting best practices, several meetings to discuss and resolve major issues and an on-going commitment to provide contributions to informational documents (e.g. Guidebook). All of the nine jurisdictions indicated an initial willingness to participate and eight jurisdictions followed through with that commitment.

The Guidebook

The participating Dane Co. jurisdictions found that they could agree on documentation requirements within the submittal plans, interpretation of the National Electric Code and inspection procedures. The main purpose of the resulting Solar Permitting Guidebook (“Guidebook”) was to create uniformity and to eliminate the confusing variety of permitting requirements for small residential solar PV installations throughout the region.

The Guidebook consists of the following components and is intended as a reference for both installers and code officials:

  • Important Information – State laws and statues pertaining to residential PV
  • Project Milestones – A four step process for submitting residential solar permits
  • Important Municipal Zoning Considerations – Additional requirements for common zoning issues for specific jurisdictions
  • Documents Required – A detailed list of required documentation for Standard and Non-Standard (i.e. special zoning district, ground-mount or mounted beyond envelop of the roof) installations
  • Contact Information – Phone, address, email, hours of operation, links to zoning and municipal code and other important information and links
  • FAQ’s – Answers to more than 40 common electrical and structural questions
  • Drawings – Detailed sample roof drawings for truss and rafter systems
  • Site Plans – Examples and templates for site plans including non-flush mounts, ground mounts, outside the roof envelop and in special zoning districts
  • PV Electrical Inspection Checklist – A checklist for installers and code officials
  • SolarStruc – Information about SolarStruc and links to download and to view the tutorial

Accomplishments

  • Developed a Solar Permitting Guidebook which aimed to create uniformity and eliminate the confusing variety of permitting requirements for small residential solar PV installations throughout Dane County.
  • Sustainable Resources Group worked with municipalities throughout Dane County to educate municipal staff and local inspectors.
  • Coordinated project planning with City of Madison IT staff and the City’s planning department to launch an online permitting option.
  • City of Madison staff developed the SolarStruc tool to calculate rooftop loads for solar installations and streamline permitting on engineered truss roof systems.

Involved Parties

  • Jeanne Hoffman, Manager of Facilities & Sustainability, City of Madison
  • Bryant Moroder, Sustainable Resources Group
  • Niels Wolter, Madison Solar Consulting