Cities reduce solar panel fees

Cities reduce solar panel fees

October 16, 2006 Filed Under: Mining Contractors, Oil and Gas  

Michele Reid was ready to install a solar panel system on the roof of her family’s home last year, until Belmont building officials told her the installation permit fee would be $1,200. It made her reconsider.

“The payback period on the panels is very long to begin with. We’re doing it because we want to help the environment, but we have a family also, and $1,200 is a lot of money,” said Reid.

Reid didn’t stop there, however. She met with city officials to find out where the high costs were coming from, and left with a list of steps for her contractor to take to streamline the process.

“In the end, it was $230,” said Reid.

Similar pressure from citizens and environmental activists has prompted 13 cities in San Mateo County to reduce their solar-panel permit fees in the past year alone, according to a recent study by the Loma Prieta chapter of the Sierra Club.

Worried that high fees could deter people from switching to solar, activists began approaching cities across the Bay Area charging upward of $1,200 just to processa homeowner’s solar-panel application ”” the equivalent of reviewing an expensive addition on a home.

“The people who put solar panels in right now are very committed, and they’re going to do it, no matter what. But as more middle-income and lower-income (homeowners) decide to buy systems, low solar-permit fees will make it affordable,” said Kurt Newick, author of the Sierra Club study and sales director of Horizon Energy Systems in Los Gatos.

Many cities Newick and his team approached made big changes to their fees. San Mateo slashed its fees from $1,229 to $219, while San Carlos removed them altogether.

Cities charge applicants a fee to analyze solar-panel plans for adherence to safety standards, according to Tom McCalmont, president of REGrid Power, one of the biggest energy installers in the Bay Area. After a system is installed, cities send out a building inspector to certify it.

Although solar-permit fees have dropped, many cities and counties inexperienced with solar permits have continued to complicate the process for contractors by asking for unusual details and asking applicants to wait for several days or weeks, contractors said.

“In San Mateo County, in terms of complexity, it can take up to a week to get a permit issued,” McCalmont said. “Whereas in Redwood City, you can get your permit in 20 minutes and be out of there.”

“Solar is a growing market in California. It’s got a lot of momentum. But what’s happening at the city and county level is this resistance,” he added.

The California Solar Initiative, a program of the Public Utilities Commission, will direct $2.9 billion toward solar-panel rebates for residential and commercial customers over the next 10 years, beginning in 2007.

A typical photovoltaic system costs

$30,000 up front and $18,000 after rebates. The system pays for itself after about 10 years and can last up to 30 years before needing to be replaced, McCalmont said.

“The incentives are such now that solar can make economic sense for almost any household,” he said.

Not quite any household. As of May 2006, only 384 homes in San Mateo County had installed solar electric systems, compared with 730 households in Santa Clara County, according to the Sierra Club report. Photovoltaic systems still account for less than half of 1 percent of all energy conduits in the Bay Area.

McCalmont said it was too soon to tell whether other county residents like Reid had already begun to take advantage of lowered solar-permit fees. However, he has noticed a difference in how people perceive the technology.

“We’ve seen a lot more people who are saying, ‘I’m doing this because I’m worried about the world I’m leaving to my children,’” he said. “For the last four or five years, their first reason was economics. Now the primary reason is environmental ”” it’s a huge mind-shift.”

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