In Minnesota’s nascent solar energy market, in 2008, the state had only one megawatt of solar capacity installed. The two cities only had a combined 200 kilowatt of solar capacity. For the few contractors trying to eke out a living in solar development, they reported that interacting with city on permitting was an enormous burden. The permitting process was ill-defined, submittal requirements haphazard, inconsistent charging of permit fees, and seemingly random thresholds for passing site inspections. On the other side of the permitting counter, city permitting and inspections staff found contractors to frequently be ignorant of and resistant to complying with routine permit requirements and unable to provide basic engineering support and justifications consistent with Minnesota’s building code. Moreover, City permit officials saw little value, given the small number of installations and the low likelihood of significant solar investment in Minnesota, of systematically addressing these issues to create a smooth path to compliance.

Approach (Local Policy)

The solar market transformation effort in Minneapolis and Saint Paul started in 2008, when the two cities jointly became one of 25 market test areas under DOE’s Solar American Cities program. This collaboration continued through 2012, when the cities moved into participating in Minnesota’s statewide market transformation program, the Minnesota Solar Challenge. In 2014, Minneapolis and Saint Paul are participating as “Beacon” cities in the Grow Solar Partnership, covering a three-state region (Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Illinois).

The cities started slowly and deliberately, by engaging stakeholders individually and in focus group settings to explore the perceived and real barriers to creating a streamlined and predictable regulatory process and solar-friendly policies. The engagement effort allowed stakeholders to define the process and the project’s goals, including the information the stakeholders believed necessary to move forward with regulatory or policy changes. The engagement was followed with several educational and training sessions from national experts. Only at that point were draft documents created, and those were separately reviewed by contractors and permit officials in both cities. The deliberative process created ownership of the draft documents by stakeholders, and allowed the project managers to assess the areas of agreement between contractors and permit officials. In the end, the first draft of the Minneapolis Saint Paul solar permit checklist went much further in streamlining the permit process than initial conversations would have allowed.

Over the next two years the first version of the solar permit checklist was expanded (via ongoing discussions with permit officials and contractors) to incorporate solar land uses into development regulation and document processes and submittal requirements for solar thermal rooftop installations, heritage preservation processes, and accessory ground-mount installations.  The program conducted a technical assessment of structural issues specific to the two cities’ housing stock to identify safe harbors on structural risks.  Concurrent work with both cities on their zoning regulations identified clear lines for an “as-of-right” solar installation for both residential and small commercial properties, and solar access protection tools within rezoning and conditional use approval processes.  Guidance documents were created to inform both permit applicants and reviewers regarding the intent and thresholds of the regulations.

Accomplishments

  • Adapting solar permitting national best practices to local conditions and creating a unified cross-city checklist that allowed one hour processing of permit applications for residential installations.
  • Incorporating solar land uses into the zoning code for both cities to create an as-of-right solar installation for residential and commercial building owners.
  • Training permit staff and inspectors in solar PV and solar thermal technologies and building and electric code requirements.
  • Reducing building permit fees for solar installations by exempting panel and electronics cost from the valuation based fee.
  • Increasing private sector solar installations from less than ten per year to over 50 per year.
  • Actively convening and participating in stakeholder-driven state policy initiatives to encourage solar development.
  • Installing and publicizing over 300 KW of public building demonstration project in ten locations and including a variety of different solar technologies.
  • Piloting industrial scale solar thermal. Helping to create, fund, and promote the largest (one MW equivalent) solar thermal installation connected to a district energy system in the nation (Saint Paul).
  • Piloting a PPA approach to a rooftop solar farm. Installing the largest (at the time) PV system in Minnesota, a 600 KW system on the convention center (Minneapolis).
  • Promoting electric vehicle use and connecting solar installations to public electric vehicle recharging stations.
  • Setting a local goal for private sector, solar development and purchases equal to 10% of total local usage (by 2025), and incorporating this goal (among others) into a new clean energy partnership agreement as part of the electric utility franchise agreement (Minneapolis).
  • Developing a web-based local solar resource map for all rooftops in the city (Minneapolis).

Lessons Learned

  1. Allow time to engage stakeholders and gain acceptance. Stakeholders did not accept the validity of national best practices without being able to take ownership in some way. Engaging contractors, code officials, and city officials must be done on their schedule and needs to grant stakeholders some degree of control over the process of adapting the best practice to local conditions.
  2. Avoid the concept of “cutting red tape.” Making regulation and permitting processes transparent and predictable is not the same as “cutting red tape.” Building code officials (counter staff, inspectors, and others) have a difficult job, enforcing safety regulations, and do not respond well to characterizations about their work being “red tape.” Creating a transparent and predictable process, however, is about maximizing the value of overburdened staff.
  3. Take conscious effort to codify implementation of best practices. Managing local regulations consistent with best practices requires a codification process that lives beyond the tenure of individual staff. Staff training is essential to implementation, but codification is essential to sustaining the implementation over time. One Beacon city codified the solar permitting checklist and process by publishing hard copies for distribution at the application counter, publicly posting how to calculate the permit fee, and by putting the checklist on its permitting webpage for download by solar contractors. Another Beacon city did not take such steps, and soon after the uniform (across the two cities) checklist was finalized, several key staff people left the city. The knowledge of what the city had, as a matter of policy, agreed to in regard to rooftop solar installations went with the staff people. Over time, counter staff also were replaced, and new staff did not know to administer the solar permit checklist. Because the policy and process were not codified, staff needed to be re-engaged and ownership over the streamlined process re-established.

Involved Parties

  • City of Minneapolis Lead
    Gayle Prest, Sustainability Director, 612-673-2931, Gayle.Prest@minneapolismn.gov
  • City of Saint Paul Lead
    Anne Hunt, Environmental Policy Director, 651-266-8520, Anne.Hunt@ci.stpaul.mn.us
  • Minnesota State Energy Office
    Stacy Miller, Solar Policy Specialist, 651-539-1859, Stacy.Miller@state.mn.us
  • Program Coordinator – Solar Cities, Minnesota Solar Challenge
    Brian Ross, CR Planning, 612-588-4904, bross@crplanning.com