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A house with a solar panel on the roof.
Solar panels are seen on the roof of a house near Sloan Lake on July 14, 2022. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

Denver plans to use a permitting software app to slash 30 days from the oft-frustrating process of getting rooftop solar panels approved for homeowners.

And the Colorado solar industry is so fired up about the idea that it’s helping push through legislation to take the miracle app statewide, with grants to local government planning departments.

Solar installation companies and customers say two aspects of the development process can greatly slow home panel construction: grid connection approval from a utility like Xcel Energy and the local municipal process of acquiring permits.

Xcel has been dinged by the solar trade associations and Colorado regulators for taking far too long to approve connections. After its solar approval process was questioned by the Public Utilities Commission over the winter, Xcel shared reports showing it was catching up on its backlog and planned to have the entire workload cleared by March. An Xcel spokesperson confirmed Monday the backlog was cleared.

Now cities are confident they can work with NREL to accelerate their part of the approvals process.

The National Renewable Energy Lab in Golden developed the SolarAPP+ to allow city permitting officials to plug in parameters of a new project and get an instant answer whether it meets planning and building codes. 

Denver called its work with the app extremely promising said it plans to use it to further accelerate growth in solar-equipped homes throughout the city.

Denver’s solar numbers are already pretty astonishing. Denver Community Planning and Development approved 3,738 solar applications in 2022. 

In launching the partnership with NREL and the SolarAPP+, Denver said 70% of those could have been sped up through use of the app in permitting. The instant review can shave 30 days off Denver’s handling time, and would have saved the city more than 1,200 hours in staff review time, the planning department said.

Solar industry representatives are enthusiastic about Denver’s results, and are helping push the NREL app statewide. 

House Bill 1234, introduced Monday in the Senate, would set aside just under $1 million for grants to other Colorado cities to learn and adopt the solar software with technical help from NREL, Colorado Solar and Storage Association President Mike Kruger said.

“One of the most important things to lowering the cost of solar is the reduction of ‘soft costs’ like review of plans and cancellations of projects due to delays,” Kruger said. “Soft costs can add up to $1 per watt, which is big, because Front Range solar costs roughly $2.75 per watt,” he added.

“So that’s a significant savings if fully realized,” he said.

The bill’s introduction says, “Many local governments are not implementing free automated permitting and inspection software due to a lack of technical resources.” 

The bill has dozens of sponsors on the House side, with Louisville Democrat Kyle Brown and Delta Republican Matt Soper as prime sponsors. Dylan Roberts, D-Avon, is the Senate’s prime sponsor. 

Licensed solar contractors who have registered with SolarAPP+ submit project details through the app, which immediately reviews the parameters and returns a confirmation, Denver officials said in a release from the planning department. “The contractor can upload the confirmation to the city’s online e-permits system, and the city will accept this as proof that the solar project has been designed to meet codes. The solar permit will be issued in real time,” the release said. 

“The process is very fast and provides a better experience for the homeowner and Sunrun,” Adam Carlson, Sunrun’s senior permit coordinator, said in the release from Denver.

That experience is confirmed by the trade association’s assessment of the app.

“I get excited every time I see a SolarAPP+ project pop up in my queue,” Carlson said. “It has really improved my day-to-day work.”

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Michael Booth is a Colorado Sun reporter covering health, health policy and the environment. Email: Twitter: @MBoothDenver