Let's work one problem at a time.
Neutral bars are for neutrals. Ground bars are for grounds. The first disconnect past the electric meter is the system grounding point, and here ONLY, neutral is bonded to ground. Got it? OK. Since that is often the main panel, an "asterisk" is written into Code which allows grounds to be guests on the main panel's neutral bar. This is not required.
Overcrowded neutral bars
Right after people learn that each neutral must have its own screw on the neutral bar, we often hear the misconception: "the manufacturer didn't give me enough spots on the neutral bar".
That's not likely. UL would not have approved the panel in such a sorry state.
What they're missing is 2 things: a) that the "1 neutral per screw" rule doesn't apply to ground, and b) the panel labeling, which states whether 2 or 3 grounds can share a screw on the neutral bar. The first step in any "crunched for neutrals" situation is -- Wait. Belay that.
For anyone else the answer is "bunch up the grounds to the extent allowed".
But for you, the panel labeling lists several models of accessory ground bar which will fit the pre-tapped holes/sites intended for them. Buy the largest of those, 2-3 if necessary or convenient. Install them. Move ALL your grounds to those.
Again read the panel labeling, some panels allow 3 grounds on a neutral screw but only 2 on an accessory ground screw.
Why are we doing that? Because you want an outside main disconnect. That will turn this panel into a subpanel, with the main disconnect being the main panel. All subpanels must have neutrals and grounds separated.
For now, while the panel is still the main panel, make sure the neutral-ground bond remains present. If you want, you can replace the strap or screw with an actual bond wire of #6 copper. You can put a clamp ammeter around that, which is diagnostically useful sometimes.
Pulling the meter without a permit
Generally the power company wants to work with you, but they're not going to help homeowners do stupid or dangerous things. I've successfully gotten meter pulls without a permit, but I was doing a repair. Don't need a permit for that.
The power company is entirely correct that they need an inspector sign-off to turn your power back on after work of a nature that requires pulling a permit.
Getting through the permit process
There are many people who can navigate government requirement efficiently. And then, there are other people who are doing the exact same thing yet get hopelessly stuck in red tape and catch-22's. A careful comparison of the two reveals that the second type is actually creating problems for themselves by imagining or inadvertently causing roadblocks the others simply do not encounter.
This isn't Psychology StackExchange, so I'll make no guesses or judgments lol.
The local inspector is just a regular person like you or me, who is charged with a responsibility that is NOT "making your life miserable". But they must deal with an endless string of Sovereign Citizen type DIYers who don't understand that, and have a HUGE chip on their shoulder about government regulation, and spew that in their face constantly. It's not a fun job.
And also DIY applicants who are scary. They need to be discouraged strongly, and/or inspected very carefully. Some of them can be difficult to talk to! So the inspector is listening carefully to what the DIYer says, and anything they say that is 'not even wrong' is a red flag. Combine that with someone with strongly held opinions, it can really leave a wrong impression.
I would like to install an external electric shut-off, so I can safely de-energize the entire house as needed.
And why would you want that? I mean external disconnects are great and I recommend them for the same reason NEC 2020 mandates them. But the inspector will be like "why not just have the power company cut the power, since I'm sure you'll have permit in hand for any permit-required work you do... right?" See how that looks?
I bought a new house, and the wiring is a little sketchy. Not "burn down the house" sketchy but "would not pass an inspection" sketchy.
Well, if it was legal at the time it was installed, it is grandfathered. Selling a house doesn't snap it up to 2020 code and require a bunch of retrofits.
If it was not legal at the time it was installed, then it is broken. Repairs don't require a permit. If a fault develops on a range cable, you don't need to pull a permit to fish a new cable.
So I would proceed forthwith and do any "repairs which are not basic changes" without any further conversation with the inspector.
If a meter pan has rusted out, you might need a permit to replace that only because the power company is involved. Of course nowadays you'd replace that with a meter-main which is what I recall you want, and that might require a permit.
Local inspector already made it clear that if I install an in-line shutoff, he's going to inspect my whole system which would definitely fail an inspection.
Well, that could be a product of "running your mouth", the person may have developed concerns about your competence. Or you offended in some way.
It would have been better to confine the project scope as much as possible, and limit it to a meter-main upgrade. Contrive a reason, such as "old meter pan is rusted out" (if you're on NEC 2020 the meter-main is mandatory) or "I want to be solar-ready".
So, I would be without power until everything was fixed, which is going to be a loooooong project.
No, that's not true! Unless you anger the person, the inspector knows perfectly well that you need somewhere to live, and simply wants any faults repaired efficiently and correctly.
Mark Twain says "the problem isn't what you don't know. It's what you know that just ain't so!" Given that, I am concerned that the severity of the matter may be overestimated. E.G.
- calling things faults when they aren't really (this happens a lot)
- things were legal at the time they were installed, and are grandfathered
- corrections which need to be done, but qualify as repairs
and you may have less trouble than you think.
We can help with an assessment of the problems.