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Cities partner with AI startup to eliminate red tape and help homeowners install solar panels: 'A major technological breakthrough'

Symbium is like TurboTax but for the permitting process.

Symbium is like TurboTax but for the permitting process.

Photo Credit: iStock

There are a lot of great reasons to install solar panels on your roof — but there's also a lot of unexpected red tape you might run into when you begin the process. To ease the process of getting rooftop solar approved for residents, several cities have turned to computer automation.

San Francisco-based startup Symbium focuses on streamlining "citizen-to-government interactions" like rooftop solar permitting. According to some city officials interviewed by Canary Media, it is more advanced than SolarApp+, the permitting software platform developed by the Department of Energy, and at least 22 cities have already signed on to try it out.

Symbium, according to its CEO and co-founder Leila Banijamali, is like TurboTax but for the permitting process. Users can input their information and have that info interpreted by the computer without having to understand complex legal codes themselves.

The basis of the technology, Banijamali said, was "a major technological breakthrough" from two fellow Stanford computer scientists involving a computer science knowledge representation paradigm called "logic programming." That breakthrough allowed the three of them to develop Symbium to convert legal codes and regulations into a "logical language" that can be interpreted by computers.

The upshot of all of this, for those of us who are less familiar with the applications of knowledge representation paradigms, is that if this technology spreads widely, it could make it a lot easier to get permits for rooftop solar panels.

Rooftop solar has been steadily on the rise in the United States for over a decade, helping to curb our use of dirty, polluting energy sources like gas and oil.

Not only would automating the permitting process make the wait times much shorter, but a computer program is much less likely than, say, a homeowners association to abuse power and start blocking all new solar panels for no tangible reason.

Of course, since the computer program would simply be following the letter of the law in determining which permits to approve, it will still be up to governments and legislators to make decisions. It will be their choice to make laws that incentivize rooftop solar by making it easier for residents or disincentivize it to cater to the whims of the dirty energy industry. 

Other great tools exist for finding access to solar energy, such as EnergySage (somewhat of an Expedia for solar panel installations) and Arcadia (a tool for finding community solar programs in your area). 

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