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Solar permitting a mixed bag for installers

Solar installers face a mixed bag city-by-city when it comes to permitting their projects.Solar installers face a mixed bag city-by-city when it comes to permitting their projects.A solar installer looking to assemble a 6-kilowatt photovoltaic system on a customer’s roof may spend a couple hundred dollars and wait around a week for a permit approving the work.

Ten or so miles down the road in a different city, a permit for the same size system could easily double in cost while the timeline stretches out under a more complex policy of weighty inspections and requirements.

Those working in the solar industry are all too familiar with this scenario and several of them are now backing efforts that would reduce fees and streamline the solar permitting process.

A January 2011 report by San Francisco-based solar company Sunrun estimated that local permitting and inspection adds $0.50 per watt, or $2,516 per residential install to the cost of a typical photovoltaic solar system.

According to the report, local permitting and inspection added 13 percent to what a homeowner would spend on panels in 2007 while the share went up to 33 percent by the time the report was released.

Sunrun’s Director of Government Affairs Walker Wright said excessive fees put the U.S. far behind countries like Germany, which now enjoys a 40 percent advantage at around $2.24 per watt.

“The panels, the labor and the inverters are all similar,” said Wright. “It significantly hinders the market here in the U.S. compared to Germany and those costs ultimately end up going to the consumer.” 

The problem is made worse, he added, when permit fees and processes vary so widely across jurisdictions that solar installers constantly have to learn new steps and undergo a different set of inspections.

 “There are many more good actors in this process than bad actors,” Wright said. “But at this point there are outlier exceptions that are outdated as to their understanding of what the permitting process should be…We have noticed not just in California but in all the states, that some municipalities have continued to add additional fees.”

After relying on the same fee structure for 15 years, the City of Fresno revised the way in which it charged for solar permits to one solely based on administrative cost recovery for inspections and the like.

City Building Official Brian Leong said the change was based on a study consultants prepared for the city around five years ago showing many jurisdictions moving away from a valuation method.

“Before it was based on unit cost per equipment so we charged a fee for the inverter, for circuiting and a fee for specific components,” Leong said.

In many cases, he added, the new calculation actually does work out to less for installers, with a fee of $114.47 for the first 10 panels and an additional $87.22 for anything beyond that. There is also $81.76 for the electrical inspection and $80.35 for a solar review.

Another positive change, he said, came in the way of shorter wait times for permits, which can now turn around in as little as a couple days given that the building’s structural integrity is intact. The city is also looking into technology upgrades that would make permits payable online.

In July, Visalia’s fee structure for solar permits also went through a transformation with the city increasing the cost to installers to help cover its services.

“It was ridiculously low fee for plan check,” said Building Official Greg Adams. “A fee for inspection was around $200 and we didn’t have it broken down.”

The city’s fee is now $400 for a solar system between 1 and 15 kilowatts, while each kilowatt over that is an extra $5.50. 

With one person on staff to review the permits and only one building inspector, Adams said applicants should allow for a wait time in the neighborhood of two to three weeks.

Solar permit fees in Clovis can only be determined after all equipment and diagrams are assessed. Permit technician Heidi Crew said each system is pretty specific and judged by number of panels, capacity and other additions.

“We’ve got a 2.5-kilowatt unit with micro-inverter and subpanel running around $279 but another one is a 8.64-kilowatt with 36 modules. The larger one is $204 but doesn’t have a subpanel,” she said.

Crew added that permit processing times and fees have generally gone down since about a year ago when the city connected to new computer system that can easily calculate the data on solar components and building codes.

Most solar permits can be approved in three to five days, she said, but the job hasn’t been easy considering the increasing number of applications and only one plan checker and four inspectors to handle them. 

In June, the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research released its long-awaited California Solar Permitting Guidebook that aims to eliminate the confusing patchwork of solar permitting requirements and fee structures across the state that have slowed solar expansion. 

The guidebook, which can be found at www.opr.ca.gov, includes a number of recommendations like standardized checklists and permit forms, online payments systems and streamlined structural and electrical reviews that recognize similarities among smaller PV systems.

Lawmakers have also addressed the burden of solar permitting recently. A provision of SB 1222, a bill authored by State Senator Mark Leno, was signed by Gov. Jerry Brown in September, prohibiting public entities from charging more than $400 for a residential rooftop system plus $15 for each kilowatt above 15 kilowatts.

AB 1801, by State Assemblymember Nora Campo, was also signed by the governor to bar municipalities from basing their fee calculations on the valuation of the solar energy system, or any other factor not directly associated with the cost to issue the permit.

Challenges aside, California continues to lead the way in solar deployment. According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, the state has an estimated 2,2025 megawatts of installed solar capacity followed by New Jersey at around 800 megawatts.