January 17, 2017

Sierra Club California honors volunteer for new laws on solar panels

Kurt Newick.

Kurt Newick.

On Nov. 10 volunteer Kurt Newick received Sierra Club California’s John Zierold Award recognizing an individual who has served Sierra Club California in the area of legislative advocacy. The award specifically honors Kurt’s efforts–and tremendous successes–in cutting the permit fees charged for installing new solar panels.

One of the satisfactions of being a Sierra Club volunteer is knowing that you have helped with some environmental victory. But few volunteers can boast of the achievement of Kurt Newick: two bills were signed into California law that would not have happened without him. They were the outcome of his hard work over seven years (see January-February 2011, page 4), and he helped draft them. Lots of other volunteers were involved, of course, but it was Kurt’s initiative, hard work, and expertise that made the laws possible. Kurt notes with appreciation, “There was always someone willing to work with me.”

The story goes back to 2005. Kurt, who works for a solar contractor, saw a problem that was discouraging people from installing photovoltaic solar panels. Every city and county charges a permit fee for a new solar system, but in many cases the fees were much greater than the costs involved in issuing the permit–and large enough to be a significant discouragement to homeowners and businesses considering an installation.

Kurt didn’t just grumble–he organized. He worked with the Global Warming and Energy Committee of the Sierra Club Loma Prieta Chapter to conduct a survey of the permit fees for residential solar installations in his chapter, and the committee then publicized the results and encouraged jurisdictions to cut high fees. The results were astounding–lots of cities started lowering their fees.

Kurt and the committee didn’t rest on their laurels. They extended the survey to include the Bay Chapter and several others (for a total of 25 counties), and to include commercial installations. The project depended on Kurt’s hard work–and on his insider’s knowledge of the solar business.

In 2011 state Sen. Mark Leno and Assemblymember Nora Campos  contacted Kurt for advice about statewide policies on the permit fees. They needed to be fair to enable cost-recovery for the cities, yet not so high as to discourage new installations. Kurt worked with legislative staff to craft bills. Along with Sierra Club California senior advocate Jim Metropulos, Kurt provided advice and presented amendments that the lawmakers included in the final bills.

“We were pleased to work with the Sierra Club and Kurt Newick on SB 1222, which helps streamline government bureaucracy to make solar more accessible to consumers,” said Leno. “Kurt’s extensive studies on solar fees statewide were the supporting basis for the bill. Our teamwork led to bipartisan support and will help ensure that the solar industry continues to generate investment and jobs in California.”

Kurt was invited to Sacramento to testify before legislative committees. Kurt comments: “I was impressed with the legislative process. It was important to the lawmakers to make the legislation simple, and fair to all parties.”

The two new laws are:

  • SB 1222 (Leno), which caps PV permit fees for rooftop systems by restricting a city or county from charging more for a solar permit than the estimated reasonable cost of providing the service for which the fee is charged, and providing specific limits on the dollar amount local governments may charge for a PV permit:
    •   residential systems: $500, plus $15 for every kilowatt (kW) over 15 kW;
    •   commercial systems: $1,000 for systems up to 50 kW, plus $7 for every kW between 51 kW and 250
    kW, plus $5 for every kW over 250 kW.
  • AB 1801 (Campos), which requires solar permit fees to be computed based on actual jurisdictional costs and specifically prohibits fees from being computed based on PV-system valuations. This will impact solar permit fees for all sizes and types of solar energy systems.

For more information on the Sierra Club’s solar-permit-fee campaign in California see www.SolarPermitFees.org.


  1. Thanks to those who are making solar permit fees more affordable and are streamlining the solar permit process!

    It is also critical that the permit issuance process be streamlined (accurate and prompt). One of the key next steps to is get the solar installers to use the Solar American Board of Codes and Standards (Solar ABCs) wiring diagram when submitting a PV permit, so jurisdictions have a consistently formatted technical set of documents to review with all the electrical info in the same format to enable fast and accurate plan reviews and permit approvals. An organization of Building Officials in the San Francisco Bay Area (the Tri-chapter Uniform Code Committee of the International Code Council) has approved solar PV permit submittal guidelines for grid-tied residential applications that now includes a version of the Solar ABCs wiring diagram! IMPORTANT: solar installers and cities are encouraged to use a version of this Solar ABCs wiring diagram for permit submittals.
    See http://www.SolarPermitFees.org/PVPermitGuidelines2010-07TUCC.pdf

  2. Kurt, as a participant in August Lobby Day for Sierra Club CA, we got the full run-down on your study that was the basis for the Leno bill- but as a member of your LP committee – I had already known about it. You deserve this award!!! Great Job!

    For more on Lobby Day and your connection to two of the bills see article on pg. 8 of Loma Prietan, Election Insight 2012: “Loma Prieta Chapter Volunteers Go To Capitol to Lobby for the Environment”

    ….”Senate Bill (SB) 1222, “Solar energy permits”, authored by Senator Mark Leno –
    stems from Loma Prieta chapter activist Kurt Newick & the Climate Change & Energy
    Committee’s study of permit fees on solar installations charged by Peninsula and South Bay cities…”

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