In much of the USA permits are required to install a solar energy system. PV installers typically need a municipal permit issued before installation can legally start. The permit approval process and accompanying fee vary widely based on local requirements. For a simple roof mounted residential PV permit some jurisdictions issue permits over the counter (same day), others take several weeks or longer. Plans need to be reviewed and inspections performed to verify that a PV project is installed in a safe manner. It is imperative that municipal governments complement federal and state incentives by keeping fees as low as possible. For the consumers, high costs discourage solar power. For the installers, red tape and delays hamper profit margins, delaying projects and increasing costs.
To help address the permit fee issue, Colorado has mandated fee caps. In California a state law requires minimum solar permit fees (this is open to interpretation by the municipalities). During the past 5 years, local chapters of the Sierra Club in California have done a number of surveys on PV permit fees and have written reports to help address the permit cost issue.
In 2005, as chairman of a Global Warming Committee at my local Sierra Club, I created a campaign to help cities in my community adopt reasonable PV permit fees. Sierra Club volunteers surveyed all cities in several local counties in northern California to find out the permit fee for a 3 kW residential PV system. There was a wide discrepancy on what neighboring cities charged. Cities were ranked by fee and we wrote a report and issued a news release about our findings. Cities with the highest fees were contacted to request these be reviewed and lowered. As a result of our efforts, lots of local newspapers covered our campaign and virtually all cities lowered their PV permit fees over a three year period. Of the 131 cities in the greater San Francisco Bay Area, 71 have significantly lowered their fees on residential projects! The original 2005 Sierra Club PV permit fee report (for residential projects) recommended a fixed fee of no more than $300, as this enables cost recovery for a city that has expertise processing permits. Most cities gave us warm responses to our campaign. They were open to setting affordable permit fees and creating supportive policies. City leaders want good attention to shine on their cities and typically take prompt action on this issue.
There was such a surprisingly large impact from our Northern California residential PV permit fee campaign, that last year, in 2009, we decided to do a similar campaign in Southern California. Partnering with local Sierra Club Chapters we had similar results! For instance, Los Angeles County lowered their residential fees in the summer of 2009 from $1,144 (for a 3 kW PV system) down to a fixed fee of $370 that does not vary with system size or value.
The latest report from the Sierra Club, Loma Prieta Chapter, addresses commercial PV permit fees. This report is based on a 2010 survey of 51 jurisdictions in a 3 county area near Silicon Valley, California. It documents that 37% of jurisdictions are charging more than a maximum cost-recovery level for commercial PV permits. The report has information on what a reasonable fee needs to be for cost recovery purposes. One needs to consider specific review tasks, PV project size, time assessments for each task and billable hourly rates in order to determine a permit fee that enables cost recovery in a fair manner. Fees should be based on a billable hourly rate for the plan review and inspection, not on project valuations, since the cost of the solar panels and inverters does not correlate to services rendered to approve PV systems, especially for larger, more expensive PV projects. The time needed for city staff to review and inspect a commercial PV project does not vary linearly by system size. For instance, the difference in time needed to process a 100 kW PV project is about twice as long as a 10 kW project (not ten times as long). One of the most important factors determining how much time a municipality spends processing a permit is the completeness and accuracy of the permit submittal package. Other critical factors include permit submittal requirements, knowledge level of the PV permit plan reviewer/inspector and quality of the PV installation itself.
For the good of society and the growth of renewable energy it is important that local jurisdictions come up with reasonable fees that supports clean, renewable power via a permit approval process that is efficient and cost-effective.
Link to Sierra Club (Loma Prieta Chapter) web site with recommendations and details on PV permit fees (including fee studies for residential and commercial PV projects): http://lomaprietaglobalwarming.sierraclub.org/solar.php
Kurt Newick (leader of this PV permit fee campaign) may be contacted at: KurtNewick@yahoo.com
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