As the need to reduce emissions becomes more prevalent, it is becoming increasingly important to bring clean, reliable power to the grid. Unfortunately, energy projects are constantly bogged down by regulatory inefficiencies at the local, state, and federal levels. Permitting and review under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) can take an average of 4.7 years to complete. Even after NEPA review is done, a project can still be held up for years in court. Several AI-powered startups are looking to address part of the permitting backlog with technology designed to speed up permitting timelines for solar projects.
One pioneer in the field is Bay Area solar permitting software company Symbium. Founded in 2018 by three professors from Stanford University’s AI Lab, Symbium’s computerized permitting pilot streamlines the approval process for residential decarbonization projects in California, automatically ensuring solar applications are up-to-code with the state’s Energy Commission standards and issuing permits in real-time.
In cities that have implemented the free pilot program, the new technology has drastically cut down on the amount of time city officials spend manually inspecting each permit application. Prior to installing the software, officials in Santa Clarita would spend up to an hour reviewing each application (employees typically receive 100+ applications per month). Santa Clarita has now translated these newfound time savings into tangible support for solar contractors by offering a $120 deduction from the standard $450 permit processing fee. Staff are also free to work on more important and complex tasks.
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Symbium’s automated software solution is powered by artificial intelligence. Symbium uses what’s known as a computational law or “Complaw” approach in AI to automate the interpretation of legal codes and streamline the permitting process. By employing natural language processing, machine learning (ML), and rule-based systems, Symbium’s Complaw-based interface ensures real-time compliance checks with the relevant state and local regulations. This empowers users to efficiently and accurately navigate intricate legal requirements, while at the same time minimizing the risk of human error.
Symbium’s online portal is now live in 22 California cities, including San Mateo, Ventura, and Buena Park. The most recent collaboration involves the city of Lancaster, a community comprising approximately 170,000 residents. Symbium forged a partnership with the city on January 3. The startup has also teamed up with the California Association of Realtors to fast-track solar permitting applications for potential property buyers.
“Symbium is leading the charge in completely reimagining the ideal user experience for citizen-to-government interactions, starting with permits and inspections,” Leila Banijamali, Symbium’s CEO, said in a press release. “We envision a world where getting a permit or a myriad of other government interactions should be as easy and seamless as buying something from Amazon.”
Symbium is not the only player in town when it comes to AI-based instant permitting services.
Developed by the National Renewable Energy Lab in tandem with building safety and industry leaders, SolarAPP+ is a favorite of local governments. Then there is Stem’s AI-driven “Athena” platform, which “enables organizations to deploy and unlock value from clean energy assets at scale.” Stem’s Athena was named a 2023 Sustainability Product of the Year by the Business Intelligence Group and the “Best Predictive Analytics Platform” in the sixth annual AI Breakthrough awards. The cloud-based platform uses machine learning to predict and enhance the real-time performance of solar, storage, and electric vehicle infrastructure assets against outside factors like weather, grid constraints, and utility rates.
A more efficient permitting process is a win for consumers, businesses, and the environment. As demand for such clean energy services grows across the country, artificial intelligence is well poised to play a crucial role in optimizing and expediting the deployment of innovative, trailblazing solutions.
Nathalie Voit is a freelance content creator and a graduate of the University of Florida. She is an alumni of The Heritage Foundation’s Young Leaders Program.