Eric Ohnstad outside his Prince William County home.
Eric Ohnstad outside his Prince William County home. Credit: Courtesy

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Eric Ohnstad’s quest for rooftop solar became such a convoluted odyssey that the 54-year-old Prince William County resident figured he would be retired or ready to relocate by the time his array powered up.

And he was far from alone.

Other homeowners across the sprawling Northern Virginia county have given up on their pursuit of solar because of molasses-like timelines.

A balky application website, higher-than-average permitting fees, and nitpicky reviews requiring multiple plan submissions had paralyzed so many solar companies that a handful had already ceased doing business there.

Some who persist charge customers more per watt just to cover the cost of those extra expenses.

Ohnstad reached out to his first solar developer in February 2022, barely two months after moving into his new home in the Haymarket neighborhood.

At the time, he was unaware of an open secret — the county of 484,000 residents ranked as the worst solar permitting jurisdiction in the state, according to calculations by local solar advocates. 

Solar United Neighbors (SUN), an advocacy organization active in Virginia, and the Chesapeake Storage & Storage Association (CHESSA), a Mid-Atlantic trade group, had already spent several years nudging county officials to simplify tedious permitting requirements and boost transparency.

“Residents would complain to us about the installer,” said Aaron Sutch, director of SUN’s Mid-Atlantic region. “It’s not the installer, it’s the permitter.”

That cajoling led to some marginal improvements “that at the end of the day is lipstick on a pig,” Sutch said.

By digging into a federal Solar Trace database, SUN confirmed that Prince William’s median solar permitting fees of $586 is more than double that of four other surrounding counties, where fees range from zero to $200.

As well, between 2018 and 2021, solar permitting took longer in Prince William than it did in Arlington, Fairfax, Stafford and Loudoun counties.

Credit: Solar United Neighbors / Courtesy

Wade Hugh, who directs the county’s Department of Development Services, readily admits that the system is far from perfect. He’s also emphatic that the county is not trying to stonewall rooftop solar, as that would be out of alignment with sustainability targets set by county government leaders.

Hugh defends the progress employees have initiated thus far to clarify rules and streamline the application process to be user-friendly. For example, staffers have added how-to videos and checklists to the website.

“We’re all learning as we jump into a new arena,” he said about adding residential solar reviews to his department’s duties.

To refine it further, he and other staffers began brainstorming with five solar developers in early December as what he’s christened the Residential Solar Process Improvement Team.

“I figured we would show our level of commitment by rolling up our sleeves and getting to the heart of the issues,” he said about monthly meetings that will extend through August. “We’re willing to put the time in. It’s a way to educate the industry and open their eyes and our eyes.”

Hugh, a county employee for 27 years, noted that both SUN and CHESSA declined invitations to send representatives.

Sutch said the newest round of discussions sounded like a dead end after a series of virtual meetings and trainings that began in December 2020 bore so little fruit.

“It became apparent that was not only a waste of our time and taxpayer money, but also a disingenuous tactic to check a few boxes instead of a bona fide effort to fix a broken system,” he said.

Last December, that mounting frustration prompted SUN to invite frazzled homeowners to participate in an Action Alert. It encouraged citizens to send letters to both their local county board supervisors and to the editors of local newspapers. 

Ohnstad and several dozen others have followed through by voicing complaints.

“We no longer have time for a conversation,” Sutch said about the ongoing campaign. “It’s time for serious action. We’re not going to hold back.”

A numbers game?

Hugh stands by the rooftop solar data he has compiled, although advocates question the validity of his records.

Installations, which stood at just 14 in 2016 and 19 in 2017, leapt to triple digits, 149, by 2018. Except for a 2020 setback caused by the pandemic, they have ramped up at a steady clip. 

Through the end of November, county reviewers had approved 842 solar plans submitted by developers last year.

“I’m not sure how many have been installed,” Hugh said, adding that permits to build a system had been issued for just over half — or 442 — of those applications within 19 days of being submitted.

Another 254 projects were greenlighted within two months — on a developer’s second try. Each repeat submission adds roughly $100 to the permit cost.

Ideally, developers desire permits within a month for the sake of efficiency and to keep installation costs close to the estimate provided to homeowners. They usually walk away when the wait extends to five months.

One of their chief gripes with Prince William is that delays and costly resubmissions for the two required permits — one structural, the other electrical — draw the process out. 

Ray Masavage, owner of Prince William-based CAVU Solar, has installed residential arrays all over Northern Virginia since 2018.

“I always have to explain to homeowners here in the county that this is going to take a while,” he said. “No job goes through without at least one resubmission because something else always comes out of left field.”

While Hugh is proud that his figures show his staff OK’d 83% of projects submitted last year within a two-month window, he admits to being dissatisfied that 17% — 146 projects — were resubmitted multiple times because reviewers repeatedly cited either design flaws or failure to follow electronic submission directives.

“There’s clearly a problem,” he said about the delays. “I need to do a better job and get my arms around what is going on.”

Nolie Diakoulas, who heads up 10-year-old Virginia Beach-based Convert Solar, expanded his business’ reach statewide three years ago as solar boomed.

However, he no longer caters to potential Prince William customers because the hurdles proved constant and insurmountable. 

“I don’t want to disparage the county,” Diakoulas said. “They’re probably just stuck in their ways. But we have a small operation and we don’t have the bandwidth to work in their parameters.”

For instance, he can accept the $130 fee for submitting an initial application. However, that total escalated to upward of $500 when the fee for permit pickups was tacked on.

Addressing permit flaws the county cited became too expensive and time-consuming, he said. The price tag for each new resubmission was close to $100 and also sent the application to the back of the review line. 

When those basic costs escalated to $1,000 or higher, it was too big of a financial hit for an installation to be profitable.

Diakoulas and the owners of other littler outfitters said the county is a better fit for Ion, Tesla and other large companies with access to a cadre of internal system designers, engineers and other specialists.

He also emphasized that the county doesn’t seem familiar with rooftop materials or equipment. For example, installers shouldn’t have to submit safety standards that are available on regularly updated specification sheets as panel technology evolves. 

“You don’t hear about roofs collapsing or fires from solar panels in the county,” he said. “I tell people we’re basically putting a glorified deck on the roof.

“I try to understand when the county says ‘our rules are our rules,’ because they protect the people who live there,” Diakoulas said. “But you can only lean on the safety crutch for so long.”

‘Regulators, not Atilla the Hun’

For Hugh, however, safety, and not playing favorites, are paramount.

“We treat everybody fairly,” Hugh said, adding that large and small solar developers receive equal attention. “We’re regulators, not Atilla the Hun.”

He noted that the county follows and enforces state building codes.

“Whether it is a garage, deck or a huge data center, we review those plans against codes,” he said. “The goal is to find code deficiencies.”

On the residential solar front, his staffers have to be sure a roof can handle a specific structural load and that homeowners’ and first responders’ lives are never jeopardized.

“It’s not us versus them,” he said. “It’s not us saying, ‘We get to make the rules.’ Our satisfaction is making sure all of this is done safely.”

Hugh is aware installers have gripes with Prince William fees because some surrounding counties have eliminated or significantly reduced such charges. Next door, Fairfax County has dumped application fees to lower barriers to solar.

Every jurisdiction does things differently, he said, adding that his department being a fee-based agency isn’t his call.

“That’s a political decision for the board to make,” Hugh said. “The county supervisors would have to say these fees will be covered by the general fund.”

Aid via solar app?

Sutch’s organization and numerous developers have encouraged Prince William to standardize and streamline the rooftop permitting process by adopting SolarAPP+, a tool developed by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

The application is deployed widely in California and Arizona. Virginia cities such as Richmond, Culpeper and Harrisonburg are testing it on trial runs. 

Hugh is open to the idea. A national trade group, the Solar Energy Industries Association, gave his staff a SolarAPP+ briefing in December.

Still, he said he’s wary of relying on software that could miss errors or overlook potential hazards.

On the other hand, Diakoulas said it would be “fantastic” for Convert Solar and other smaller operations if Prince William warmed to the application.

The conversion would allow “everybody to be on the same page” because the software integrates with existing government regulations, automates plan reviews and tracking and provides final signoff for inspections.

“It’s a solution that would allow Prince William to be a solar leader in not just Virginia but in the whole Mid-Atlantic region,” Diakoulas said. “All the dominoes would fall in the right way, which would be quite amazing.”

Ohnstad, a defense contracting consultant, whose wait for solar lasted almost a year, also urged the county to be receptive to SolarAPP+ in a series of January letters to newspaper editors and government officials.

The homeowner’s drawn-out solar saga prompted him to compile his own figures. He estimates that the county’s residential solar penetration rate is well under 1% of 117,000 eligible homes.

“At the current permitting rate, it’ll take centuries to reach full solar adoption,” he said. “This rate is shameful because it’s self-induced.”

Let there be solar in Haymarket

Ohnstad’s contract with his first solar installer fell apart last spring. The county’s multi-month refusal to approve a building permit because of a disputed roof deficiency so irritated the developer that the company walked away from that job — and Prince William.

Enter Masavage.

The nimble and determined owner of CAVU Solar finally gained the necessary permits after inheriting Ohnstad’s project in August. Masavage’s crew installed Ohnstad’s 10-panel, 5-kilowatt array in early January.

“I don’t know why Prince William has to go to this degree over very minor things,” Masavage said. “It’s just a nightmare.”

Ohnstad is tickled that Masavage persevered — and that he’ll be able to “flip the switch” to energy from the sun any day now after a few loose ends are tied up. 

“I think of it as just paying my electric bill for the next 10 years up front,” he said about his expected return on investment. “But that’s not why I had it installed.”

Instead, his “why” is his teenage daughter.

“We have an existential threat called climate change. I want to do everything I can for her to have an environment somewhat similar to what I have.”

Next up? He’s intent on expanding his array to accommodate the electric vehicle, induction stove and heat pump he envisions in his cleaner, greener future. 

That likely will require one or more county permits. So, no, he isn’t holding his breath.

Elizabeth McGowan

Elizabeth is a longtime energy and environment reporter who has worked for InsideClimate News, Energy Intelligence and Crain Communications. Her groundbreaking dispatches for InsideClimate News from Kalamazoo, Michigan, “The Dilbit Disaster: Inside the Biggest Oil Spill You Never Heard Of” won a Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting in 2013. Her book, "Outpedaling 'The Big C': My Healing Cycle Across America" is available from Bancroft Press. Based in Washington, D.C., Elizabeth covers the state of Virginia.