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Aligning the Stars: Bringing Solar Professionals Together to Improve the National Electrical Code

Monday, May 15 2017

Evelyn Butler

Deploying solar - particularly residential, commercial and industrial systems - means having to comply with the requirements in the National Electrical Code (NEC), NFPA 70. While jurisdictions adopt NEC updates on their own timelines, the model NEC is updated on a three-year cycle and the time for the solar industry to weigh in on the 2020 version is now. 

As part of the NFPA’s governing regulations, revision of the NEC starts with the Public Input process, where anyone can make a proposal for a revision that the relevant Technical Committee will consider. 

This is a critical process that can affect how PV and solar thermal systems are designed and installed.  The resulting provisions are used by local electrical and building inspectors, as well as fire marshals/inspectors, (collectively referred to as Authorities Having Jurisdiction or AHJs) in the design review, permitting and approval process. A PV system cannot be put on a structure or connected to the grid without those AHJ approvals.

The solar industry has a strong interest in ensuring the code is concise, clear, practical, and ensures safe installations. Good code means faster and better solar deployment. Public Input proposals can include clarifications to compliance requirements and range from topics such as general definitions and marking requirements, wiring methods, rapid shutdown to disconnecting means, large-scale solar considerations and energy storage integration. While many of these proposals are focused on PV, they can also encompass solar thermal and general electrical topics.

The best approach for getting proposals through the NFPA legislative process is with industry consensus and sound rationale that demonstrates why the change is needed. Gaining that industry consensus on the idea well before it arrives on the table of the Technical Committee is key. When the Technical Committees see there has been robust technical discussion, good engineering judgment, data and/or research conducted if necessary, and that industry is supportive, it’s like the stars have aligned in the codes universe. In the last revision cycle, 83 Public Inputs submitted by the solar industry were submitted and approved (cue party music!).

To that end, SEIA, along with three other organizations – the Interstate Renewable Energy Council (IREC), PV Industry Code Council (PVICC) and Solar Energy International (SEI) – have come together to organize, convene, support and mentor solar industry professionals through this process, which is open to all solar industry participants. 

To learn more about the developments, hear about ideas being considered and review the rationale behind some of those ideas, we invite you to the next in-person working meeting which will be in July in the San Francisco Bay Area. 

Nine task groups have been formed, each with two conveners to facilitate discussions and topics. Task groups are meeting weekly to form and react to ideas, talk through the design and engineering implications and come to that much-needed consensus. If participating in a task group is not possible, you can also hear task group updates at the monthly update calls; contact Evelyn Butler.

Why the effort to rally this consensus? It’s pretty simple really – when technical solar experts come together to find the best solutions, that leads to better and more solar deployment!  We can do this faster because there is less mystery about the technology that AHJs must approve, and solar gets cheaper because there is more standardization about what is required and how it is installed and inspected.