Streamlining Solar Permitting | Local Clean Energy Alliance of the Bay Area

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Streamlining Solar Permitting

Municipal governments charge permit fees to cover the cost of assessing whether a PV system plan meets health and safety standards. The fee also covers the cost for an inspector to assess the system after installation. Such assessments protect people, and the utility’s electric grid itself, from such hazards as faulty wiring, improper mounting and insufficient roof support.

The Solar America Board for Codes and Standards (www.solarabcs.org) is developing a straightforward permitting process so that contractors and jurisdictions will have a defined set of materials sufficient for permitting small-scale PV systems.

State Law

California Government Code section 66005 (a) specifies, “[development permit] fees or exactions shall not exceed the estimated reasonable cost of providing the service...”.   On December 22, 2005 the California State Supreme Court upheld this statute.  

Sierra Club Study

Businesses can pay over $25,000 just for the permit to install photovoltaic (PV) solar panels in certain Bay Area jurisdictions. By contrast, other jurisdictions in the area charge under $1,000 for the permit to install a PV system of the same size, according to a survey of Santa Clara, San Mateo and Alameda counties.

Members of the Global Warming and Energy Committee (GWEC) for the Sierra Club’s Loma Prieta Chapter conducted the survey in the Spring/Fall of 2008. The survey’s purpose was to gauge the progress of Bay Area municipalities in making solar energy financially viable for non-residential entities. Besides businesses, those entities include schools, hospitals, government buildings and non-profit organizations.  “High permit fees can discourage customers,” said Kurt Newick, who led the survey.  While larger companies can afford a permit that is over $25,000, smaller businesses might find that fee prohibitive.  “High fees undermine the PV industry itself too," said Newick. "Most companies that install PV systems are tiny compared to the corporations that provide dirty energy from coal, oil and gas. High fees hurt smaller companies more.”

The GWEC survey compared the permit fees for 8 kW, 49 kW and 131 kW PV systems valued at $74,000, $475,000 and $1,200,000 respectively. The following charts show how the jurisdictions in the survey area compare.

  8kW fee 49kW fee 131kW fee
Alameda County $1,981 $7,737 $14,399
Fremont $508 $509 $511
Alameda (City) $1,609 $2,258 $4,620
Dublin $1,257 $1,250 $2,322
Emeryville $1,487 $9,543 $24,108
San Leandro $350 $450 $775
Hayward $300 $300 $300
Newark $279 $1,838 $3,322
Oakland $220 $220 $220
Pleasanton $173 $465 $465
Berkeley $120* $120* $120*

* Subject to a solar electric plan check fee.

Web Links:

San Jose Mercury News Cover Story from April 27th
http://www.mercurynews.com/news/ci_12222237?nclick_check=1

Lomo Prieta Chapter Cover Story Article
http://lomaprieta.sierraclub.org/TheLomaPrietan.asp?q=2009050101

PV permit fee campaign info:
http://lomaprietaglobalwarming.sierraclub.org/solar.php

Non-residential PV permit fee campaign:
http://lomaprietaglobalwarming.sierraclub.org/Solar_Initiative_Files/CommercialPVSurvey.php
 

Standardizing Solar Permits

The Standard Permit Application (SPA) establishes minimum standards for uniform permitting of PV systems. It is based on applicable codes and other standards, as well as on the practical experience of installers and inspectors throughout California. Adopting these standards would streamline PV system permitting processes in building departments.

Who will Benefit, and How?

  • Installers will be better prepared for installation and inspection, and will achieve greater efficiency and a shorter learning curve. Excessive control will be avoided, and installations and inspections will become streamlined and more predictable, thereby minimizing costs.
  • Suppliers will be able to reduce variations in equipment. Effective standardization will promote a thriving component ecosystem, as the PC industry demonstrates.
  • Consumers will benefit from reduced costs. They will also be assured safe and effective installations, with proper structural attachment, wiring and documentation.
  • The PV industry as a whole will grow more rapidly and achieve a heightened image, further driving down costs and assuring long-term prosperity.

 

Resources
Inspector Guidelines for PV Systems, Brooks Engineering, March 2006
Photovoltaic Electrical Power Systems Inspector/Installer Checklist, 5/3/05, John Wiles
Inspecting Photovoltaic Power Systems, John Wiles
Sierra Club solar electric permit fee study and campaign