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One Man's Fight To Cut California Solar Permitting Fees

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 (pictured, left with award) 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.

This article was orignally published in The Sierra Club Yodeler and was reprinted with permission.

Lead image: superhero via shutterstock.

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