January 17, 2017

Publicity pushes down price of solar permits

Local volunteers have published another in their series of reports on solar-system permit fees.

A municipal permit is required for installing a solar-energy system. For a given type of project, the accompanying fee varies widely from city to city, though state law requires cities to minimize it. A high fee can discourage people from switching to solar.

To help keep these fees down, during the past five years, local chapters of the Sierra Club in California have done a number of surveys on permit fees for home photovoltaic systems. Local newspapers have covered our campaign, and as a result, 71 of the 131 cities in the greater Bay Area have significantly lowered their fees on residential solar projects!

Our latest report focuses not on homes, but on permit fees for commercial photovoltaic projects in Alameda, Santa Clara, and San Mateo Counties. Our report documents that as of summer 2010, 37% of jurisdictions were charging more than a cost-recovery level. The report analyzes reasonable fees, considering specific review tasks, project size, time needed for each task, and billable hourly rates. Some of the excessive charges arise when cities base fees on project valuations, because the cost of reviewing and inspecting a commercial solar project does not vary linearly with system size. For instance, the time needed to process a 100 kW project is only about twice that for a 10 kW project.

In April 2009 we contacted the 16 municipalities charging more than $5,000 for a 131 kW system, requesting that they review their fee-calculation methods.

This past October we again sent such letters to the 12 municipalities in the survey area that still charged permit fees over $5,000 for a 131 kW system. Three of these cities were in Alameda County: Hayward, Newark, and Union City. Between 2009 and 2010 in Alameda County three jurisdictions had significantly reduced their commercial solar-permit fees: the county, Berkeley, and Emeryville, but Hayward and Newark had significantly increased theirs. In November 2010, though, Hayward responded to the Sierra Club request and significantly lowered its fees.

Also in October 2010 we published a report on the commercial survey data. Along with this we created an easy-to-use downloadable spreadsheet to help municipalities determine cost-recovery levels for commercial photovoltaic projects.

In November we sent out surveys to all six remaining Bay Area counties as well as several in southern California. Our plan is to write a report for each county and to contact municipalities with unreasonably high solar-permit fees. (Update: in December we published our report on Marin County.)

For all of our reports on solar fees, see: www.SolarPermitFees.org

Kurt Newick

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