Empowering Communities to Accelerate Distributed Energy Resources

In many parts of the United States, navigating the building permits required for distributed energy resources such as solar, storage, and electric vehicles (EVs) can be a daunting process. Many communities have burdensome requirements for installing such technologies and/or lack the capacity to process applications in a timely manner. Costly delays can lead building owners and companies to dismiss technologies that will be critical for reducing carbon emissions and managing the electric grid.

A new project led by New Buildings Institute (NBI) and funded by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) aims to alleviate some of these barriers to adoption. The three-year project known as EMPOWERED is helping communities increase deployment of technologies, namely energy storage and EV charging facilities, that will help reduce carbon emissions, save people money, and help balance energy supply and demand on the grid.

NBI along with our partners will develop a set of guides and checklists that more clearly lay out a standard approach to permitting and inspections for these distributed energy resources. The team will also field test the guides in eight municipalities and collaborate with the Interstate Renewable Energy Council (IREC) to provide a series of training sessions for local government staff and installers to encourage buy-in and compliance with applicable building codes. The municipalities will form into two regional cohorts that will convene regularly as a way to share challenges, lessons learned, and best practices. This feedback loop will provide essential insights to scale the project through collaboration with IREC and the International Code Council, one of the organizations teaming on the effort.

An important outcome of the EMPOWERED project will be to help engage and prepare the workforce for the growth in opportunities related to distributed energy resources.

Leveraging lessons from SolSmart

EMPOWERED builds off the success of DOE’s SolSmart program, which since 2016 has helped accelerate the deployment of solar panel installations in participating cities across the U.S. Like SolSmart, EMPOWERED will provide no-cost technical assistance from a team of national experts who will work with jurisdictions to tailor permitting and inspection programs to suit their specific needs. A select number of communities also have access to EMPOWERED advisors, who are fully-funded, experienced staff working directly in communities for up to six months.

SolSmart, which started as a pilot project in select cities, has grown into a nationwide program of more than 400 city, county, and regional organizations representing 99 million U.S. residents. Likewise, EMPOWERED aims for a national footprint sending market signals that storage and EV charging installations are easy, fast, and more affordable to install in participating communities.

EV charger
Photo by Ed Harvey from Pexels.

EMPOWERED seeks to have expedited permitting similar to SolSmart’s one day turn around. To help jurisdictions meet local demand as well as make progress toward their climate or clean energy goals, EMPOWERED will develop permitting and inspection guides covering applications of these technologies for single-family, multifamily, and office buildings.

Having access to fully funded experts to create guides and educate staff takes the burden off city staff to problem solve when permitting and inspecting these newer technologies. In order to provide this technical expertise, NBI has partnered with six leading organizations to deliver EMPOWERED including Forth Mobility, Earth Advantage, the Energy Storage Association, Southwest Energy Efficiency Project (SWEEP), Metropolitan Area Planning Council, and the International Code Council (ICC).

Preparing the clean energy workforce

An important outcome of the EMPOWERED project will be to help engage and prepare the workforce for the growth in opportunities related to distributed energy resources. From manufacturers to installers to service providers maintaining equipment, each has an important role to play in helping ensure these technologies are installed safely and properly.

Clean energy remains the biggest job creator across America’s energy sector, employing nearly three times as many workers as fossil fuel jobs, according to the E3 report “Clean Jobs America 2021”. Even better, these jobs pay well and the opportunity for job growth in the solar, storage and EV sectors are significant, given climate legislation proposed by the Biden Administration, and by cities, counties, and states across the nation. For example, the “U.S. Energy Storage Monitor” report found that energy storage installations nationwide saw a 250% growth rate in the first quarter of 2021 over the previous year.

Because many jurisdictions approach permitting solar, storage and EV charging differently, installers must navigate a patchwork of rules that vary from one community to the next. This understandably creates confusion among installers, who then need to train their workforce across multiple jurisdictions. In one community, a code official reported a 40% disapproval rating on all solar installs. Such delays create added work and expenses that EMPOWERED aims to overcome through the development of clear guides and checklists developed by technical experts and vetted by several communities.

Get Involved

The resources created during this project will be posted on NBI’s and IREC’s website. Please subscribe to NBI’s newsletter and follow us on social media. NBI will also release a survey and interview leading jurisdictions, installers, and manufacturers this year to inform the creation of the guides. If you want to participate in this process or have questions about EMPOWERED, please email Diana Burk, NBI Project Manager.

by Diana Burk, Project Manager
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