Resident complaints about long turnaround times prompted an overhaul of permitting processes. | Elanathewise

Lakeland Electric’s Scott Bishop has a message for the burgeoning number of local residents who are installing solar power at their homes: “Welcome to the team. You’re now a grid operator.”

The city of Lakeland received 285 solar permit applications in 2022 — more than five times the 55 received just two years earlier.

And Bishop, who oversees the utility’s energy delivery division, expects solar adoption to multiply at a faster rate in the next few years. A little more than 1,000 homes served by Lakeland Electric have solar power now, representing just under 1% of the customer base. But Bishop told Lakeland city commissioners that with 40 to 50 new residential systems coming online each month, there could be 25% to 30% solar penetration by 2035.

With that in mind, Lakeland Electric and the city’s Community and Economic Development Division have worked to simplify the process to apply for solar permits and reduce the time it takes to approve them. Bishop and Building Official Dale Marquardt described the changes in a presentation to the City Commission on Monday. (See the presentation here or at the end of this article.)

The main goal is to efficiently handle the growing quantity of solar applications while ensuring safety standards set in state and national building and fire codes are maintained, Marquardt told commissioners.

Another goal is to reduce the number of applications with errors or missing information. The city received 438 permits in 2021 and 2022 from 92 different solar contractors. “Some applications we receive are well done, and we’re able to issue the permits fairly quickly,” Marquardt said. “Others require a lot of staff time and multiple rounds of revisions.”

Since updating the permit procedures, the city has gone from approving 50.5% of applications in the first or second round of review in 2021 and 2022 to approving 83.9% in the first two rounds this year, he said. In addition, 41% of applicants received a permit within 10 days this year compared with 8% during the last two years.

To accomplish their goals, city officials created a solar-specific permit application and simplified the solar checklist and plan requirements document. It also created optional fill-in-the-blank plans packets for standard string inverter and micro-inverter systems.

Marquardt said the city received guidance from SolSmart, a federal Department of Energy-funded organization that works with local governments on creating effective solar energy procedures.

City earns national recognition for ‘pro-solar’ practices

After reviewing the revised procedures, SolSmart awarded Lakeland a silver designation for its “solar friendliness,” making it the first Polk County municipality to be recognized. Plaques now hang in the building inspection office at City Hall and the lobby of Lakeland Electric.

Nearby governments with SolSmart ratings include Orlando and Orange County, which have received gold designations, and the cities of Tampa and Sarasota, which received bronze designations.

Building Official Dale Marquardt (left), Community and Economic Development Director Brian Rewis and Lakeland Electric Assistant General Manager of Energy Delivery Scott Bishop (right) hold plaques designating Lakeland a SolSmart Silver city. | City of Lakeland

Next, city officials are looking into a program called SolarAPP+ created by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory to automate permitting of simple residential rooftop solar installations.

Marquardt likened it to a “TurboTax for solar plans.” The software would verify equipment size and load calculations at each step and not allow contractors to proceed to the next screen if there were any errors. There would be no cost to the city; applicants would pay $25 to use the software.

Once the city has finished automating as much as it can, Marquardt said his department will provide training sessions for solar contractors and provide regional leadership to other local governments struggling with the same challenges. He said there is “a lot of interest” in what Lakeland has been doing.

Bishop said the utility is also looking at ways to simplify its solar processes. In this case, it would be a web portal for finalizing the “interconnect agreement” that a consumer needs to sign after the equipment is installed.

The agreement addresses things like the volume of electricity the consumer will add to the Lakeland Electric grid and the technology used for the connection to the grid. As with the building permit process, some contractors are more exacting than others, he said.

Advice for homeowners considering solar

Bishop said the growth of residential solar systems is exciting and customer-owned systems are now generating 7 megawatts of electricity per hour – nearly half the output of LE’s five utility-scale solar fields, which produce 14.7 megawatts per hour.

However, he cautioned that solar systems are not right for everyone. Bishop outlined some questions consumers should consider before proceeding with solar. Among them:

  • What is my monthly bill and the cost of solar? “Make sure you know what your cost of energy is on a monthly basis and what you’re going to pay on those solar panels.”
  • Who is the vendor? “Make sure you know they are going to be around in 10 years. You’re making a seven to 10-year investment, and you need to know that when you need to replace a couple of panels that somebody will be there to help you.”
  • Is my roof right for solar? “If you’re covered in trees or you’re all north-facing roof, you might not want to put solar on there.”
  • What is your goal? “There is a financial return. It’s seven to 10 years. Or is it about sustainability and using less fossil fuel for you? Either way, there’s cases to be made.”

He unveiled a new video urging customers to “call before you install” and get a free home energy audit from Lakeland Electric.

Bishop reminded commissioners that once homeowners install solar equipment, they start putting energy onto the grid “and we’re crediting for that. So we need to make sure they understand that our relationship just changed, that they’re part of the team that we’re on.”

Commissioner Bill Read asked about advertisements that imply that solar is free in Florida.

Solar isn’t free, Bishop responded. “That’s just a sales pitch.” While there are subsidies, rebates and tax incentives available, the consumer needs to realize that they will be drawing from the power grid when the sun isn’t shining, he said.

Read also relayed a personal experience where he discovered that it’s best to install solar on a new roof, not one that will be replaced in a few years.

Insurance companies typically require new roofs every 15 years, Bishop said. “So if your roof is 10 (years old) and you have to replace it in 15, you’re not going to make it.”

Commissioner Mike Musick asked Bishop to discuss the future of solar adoption and how that will affect investments Lakeland Electric needs to make.

“We’re good until 2035, but we need to ask those questions sooner rather than later,” Bishop responded. Once solar penetration reaches 25 or 30%, “We’re going to need more batteries and more (energy) management and better software to make sure this thing is being leveraged for both the customers and the utility.”

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Barry Friedman founded in 2015 as the culmination of a career in print and digital journalism. Since 1982, he has used the tools of reporting, editing and content curation to help people in Lakeland understand their community better.

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