Solar Electric Permit Fees in Northern California

A Comparative Study

By Carl Mills and Kurt Newick © copyright 03/31/2008

Contents

1. Executive Summary

Federal and state incentives, such as the California Solar Initiative, take much credit for making photovoltaic (PV) energy systems (solar panels) more affordable to middle-income homeowners. Technological advances have also lowered PV costs over the past few decades. But few realize permit fees at the local level also make a difference.

Almost all cities charge PV installers a permit fee. The fee covers services that cities perform to ensure installations meet engineering and safety standards. Solar contractors bill homeowners for this fee as part of the installation cost. Cities whose inspectors are most knowledgeable about PV systems usually cover their permitting expenses with a fee of $300 or less for standard, average-sized systems.* Unfortunately, some cities base permit fees on system valuation or are not so familiar with PV, and charge far more.

This study compares the progress of 131 municipalities in Northern California in making PV permit fees affordable. The goal is to persuade local governments with high fees to follow the example that our region's most solar-friendly cities have set.

This study is a follow up to a prior study for the counties of San Benito, San Mateo and Santa Clara. The following chart shows the progress of our campaign to reduce solar permit fees in that region.

2. Study Parameters

3. Findings Summary

3.1 Permit Fee Variation

As of March 31, 2008, the permit fees varied from $0 to $671, or 0% to 3.6% of the total post-rebate cost ($18,600) of a standard PV installation. Out of 131 jurisdictions, 98 had fees of $300 or less, 9 had fees of $500 or more, and 19 charged nothing. The average fee was $224.

3.1 Permit Fee Ceiling

After surveying various city permit processes and costs, we recommend $300 as a reasonable maximum for solar permit fees. This amount would cover most or all of the services a city must perform to ensure a PV installation meets engineering and safety standards. (For residential PV systems, experienced building department staff normally take 2–4 hours to process the permit and inspect the system.) The following sections describe the context of our $300 recommendation.

4. Why We Need Solar Energy

California gets more sunshine hours than any state besides Arizona. Solar irradiance averages over 5.4 peak sun hours per day in much of California. As such, PV systems here have tremendous potential for harnessing this inexhaustible energy source. Conversely, we have much to lose by ignoring solar power, due to our state's soaring demand for energy, rising fossil fuel prices, environmental degradation and dependence on offshore energy imports. The following subsections explain the factors that contribute to these trends.

4.1 Economic Growth

The products in which Silicon Valley specializes are energy intense. Internet traffic, computers, and computer-related products have huge electric appetites. As the Bay Area’s economy grows, so will its output of such products and their demand for electricity.

The following chart shows the correlation between California's economic growth and electricity consumption over a 40-year period. Obviously, our economy cannot continue evolving unless we increase electricity production commensurably.

California Electricity Consumption from 1960–2000

4.2 Population Growth

As our population grows, so does energy demand. California's population is expected to grow 51% between 2000 and 2040. The population for our surveyed counties is forecasted to grow 42% between 2000 and 2040.

4.3 Reliance on Imports

The following chart illustrates California's dependence on energy imports.

These imports are only as reliable as the states and countries that provide them. Those providers are subject to political, economic, and even climatic conditions that can interrupt our supply unpredictably.

This also applies regionally. A CEC study indicates Silicon Valley produces only about 15 percent of its power, making it California's most energy-deficient area. A Silicon Valley Manufacturing Group study says the area might need more energy than it can import by 2010. The Group estimates that its nearly 200 members lost over $100 million dollars in just one day of rolling blackouts in June 2000. Our transmission system's inability to import enough electric power to the San Francisco Bay Area caused the first rolling blackouts that year.

Locally, electric demand increased 6% from 2001 to 2005. The following chart shows this trend from 2001 (the year of California’s last energy crisis) through 2005.

4.4 Dirty Energy

Of the electric energy that California consumes, only 11% is from renewable sources (solar, geothermal, small hydroelectric, biomass and wind) as of 2006. As the following chart shows, 57% is from fossil fuels (coal and natural gas) as of 2006. (Fortunately, a recently passed state law [SB 107] accelerates California’s renewables portfolio standard and requires investor–owned utilities to achieve a 20 percent renewable electricity portfolio by the end of 2010.)

As natural gas supplies dwindle, fossil fuels that create even more greenhouse gas pollution (e.g. coal) could fill the gap. Fossil fuels and nuclear energy have health consequences and risks beyond all economic considerations, both for individuals and our environment. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, an international body comprising 2,000 of the world’s leading climate scientists, has concluded that our global climate is gradually warming. They predict that during our children's lifetimes global warming could raise the planet's average temperature by as much as 11 degrees Fahrenheit. Unchecked, this landscape-altering trend promises a heavy toll on our ecosystems, economies and quality of life. Moreover, energy from non-renewable sources becomes more expensive over time due to finite supply. In contrast, renewable energy technologies tend to become more affordable as supply and economies of scale increase.

4.5 The Solar Solution

Solar electricity is a clean, reliable, and renewable solution that can alleviate much of our state’s energy problems and its contribution to global warming. Local sunlight and available roof space are plentiful, so only the number of installations can limit PV energy's potential. Moreover, PV virtually eliminates long-distance electric transmission losses (which are around 7%) because the individual home is both the source and destination of the energy. Best of all, once a PV system is installed, it generates energy for free, requires minimal maintenance, and can last 35 years or more. This makes PV a fantastic long-term financial investment for homeowners.

Awareness of solar energy’s advantages is growing. A Roper survey of 1,004 adults conducted in May 2006 showed:

In response to this popular momentum, some cities are installing PV systems on municipal buildings and reducing or eliminating PV permit fees. Other cities still charge high permit fees that make the PV industry less competitive with polluting energy sources, especially imports. Kate Latham’s master thesis of 16 municipalities that have installed PV systems in California describes PV as "a sound economic investment for local communities." California recently passed the Million Solar Roofs Initiative (SB1) that requires home developers to offer PV as an option beginning January 1, 2011. This legislation creates 10 years of incentives with a goal to install the equivalent of 1 million 3kW solar electric systems in California.

The demand for solar energy is growing rapidly (about a 40% a year). This is causing growing pains and temporary shortages of silicon (a key ingredient in solar cells). The result is temporarily increased solar module prices and restricted PV panel deliveries. Over the long term, PV system costs in a competitive environment will decline as increased supply creates price competition for solar products and installation services. The fact that solar electricity is a new technology in a virtually untapped market accelerates this trend: currently, solar power generates only a fraction of one percent of our electricity. Solar power investments and innovations are proliferating to fill this void.

However, no competitive market forces influence permit fees! There is only one local permitting authority for each installation site. Thus, one goal of this study is to help foster a more competitive environment for solar permit fees by publicly ranking local jurisdictions.

5. A Typical Case History

Marilyn Thomas of Mill Valley experienced her PV purchase as so many do: as an opportunity and a frustration.

"My first motivation was to save the planet and number two was… my [utility] bill would be less expensive," Thomas said of her reasons for going solar. Seven months after Cooperative Community Energy (CCE) installed her 3.3 kW system, she was more than satisfied with its performance. "I've been paying about $5 dollars a month [for electricity]."

However, she cited a long wait and high price as the primary hurdles. "Make it easier for people to get solar and… even subsidize it," Thomas advised governments.

Permit fees are one of many cumulative costs for a PV system that make potential customers think twice. Jason Jackson, President of Solaris Solar (a PV installation company), expressed his customers' viewpoint: "I'm already spending all this money on solar, I'm trying to reduce my impact on the planet, I'm trying to help out the city and myself and the environment, and I'm being penalized for it."

Fortunately, Thomas's city has heard and answered such pleas. Starting in 2006, Mill Valley reduced its permit fee for standard PV systems to a flat $3.29—one of the cheapest PV fees anywhere. And it now issues permits over-the-counter for systems that meet its design guidelines.

"City Council… has an interest in green building and encouraging alternative forms of energy," said Elise Semonian, Associate Planner for the City of Mill Valley. Over-the-counter permitting there means about 15 minutes for the permit application review. The post-installation inspection also takes about 15 minutes. "We hope that it [low fees and quick permitting] is encouraging people to install."

"There's nothing complicated about a solar system," said Tom McCalmont, President of REgrid Power (another PV installer). "Some building departments are unfamiliar with them … so they're ultra-cautious in their process. Cities like San Jose… do it over the counter; you're in and out."

McCalmont said many cities spend too much time reviewing the plans for PV installations instead of inspecting them properly after installation. "It's very clear from cities like San Jose… that it [processing solar permits] can be done safely, dependably, with an over-the-counter permit… The cities would be better served by sending the inspectors to classes and getting them trained and familiar with solar so that they do the right thing when they come out and look."

Jackson of Solaris Solar said frustration with permit processes is having an impact on the PV industry. "When you are depending on things going quickly and smoothly to make the finances work in a small [solar] company, I think it does hurt a lot of people."

6. Why Cities Require Solar Permits

Cities require solar permits to ensure PV installations meet safety and engineering standards. All utilities require a signed-off building permit before officially authorizing a PV system’s operation. Entities that issue solar rebate money (e.g. the California Energy Commission and PG&E) require a permit before issuing the rebate. Utilities also require a permit before authorizing connection to the grid.

Installing systems that generate electricity and connecting them to the transmission grid is potentially dangerous. The installations must be safe for homeowners, contractors, grid technicians, and firemen. They must also be safe for the transmission grid itself. Therefore, cities pay staff or outside consultants to inspect PV plans and installations to verify they meet code and safety standards. Poor installations may cause electrocution or fires, and are vulnerable to power surges during blackouts. A safe backflow of power into the grid is important both for the PV owner and for the community that relies on the grid.

Local permitting authorities must verify the homeowner’s roof can support a PV system and that the PV system’s rack and roof attachments are water tight and meet wind-load requirements. The system must also meet building and electrical code requirements.

7. Permit Fees: Comparison by City

7.1 Ranking the Cities

The following tables show the permit fee that each surveyed city charges for a PV system that has the specifications described in Section 2 .

Note: These fees do not reflect the business license fee that most municipalities require solar contractors to pay. Business licenses are usually $30 to $200 and are good for a year.

As of March 31, 2008, the Average Permit Fee in the survey region was $224.

Ranked by Fee

Listed Alphabetically

Municipality

Fee

Municipality

Fee

Notes

Vallejo

$671

Alameda (City)

$108

Reduced from $510

Calistoga

$585

Alameda County

$358

Reduced from $458

Yountville

$585

Albany

$183

Piedmont

$541

American Canyon

$292

East Palo Alto

$534

Antioch

$243

Reduced from $745

Hercules

$533

Atherton

$250

Reduced from $970

Hillsborough

$509

Belmont

$0

Reduced from $1,100

Windsor

$509

Belvedere

$155

Increased from $73

Cotati

$500

Benicia

$125

Daly City

$490

Berkeley

$113

Reduced from $261

Cloverdale

$486

Brentwood

$250

Union City

$475

Brisbane

$250

Reduced from $816

Los Altos

$474

Burlingame

$309

Reduced from $1,022

Santa Clara County

$450

Calistoga

$585

Napa County

$401

Campbell

$225

Reduced from $687

Watsonville

$399

Capitola

$130

Increased from $125

Woodland

$395

Citrus Heights

$0

Reduced from $732

Los Gatos

$390

Clayton

$230

San Ramon

$387

Cloverdale

$486

Sonoma County

$373

Colma

$80

Napa (City)

$364

Concord

$288

Reduced from $600

Alameda County

$358

Contra Costa County

$195

Millbrae

$358

Corte Madera

$313

Reduced from $660

San Mateo County

$345

Cotati

$500

Sunnyvale

$339

Cupertino

$300

Reduced from $1,002

Pacifica

$334

Daly City

$490

Reduced from $986

West Sacramento

$330

Danville

$290

Reduced from $850

Palo Alto

$327

Davis

$196

San Bruno

$320

Dixon

$149

Corte Madera

$313

Dublin

$250

Reduced from $740

Sonoma (City)

$309

East Palo Alto

$534

Burlingame

$309

El Cerrito

$0

Reduced from $840

Oakley

$303

Elk Grove

$0

Reduced from $336

Pinole

$300

Emeryville

$250

Reduced from $674

Cupertino

$300

Fairfax

$0

Reduced from $783

Gilroy

$300

Fairfield

$203

Hayward

$300

Folsom

$0

Reduced from $823

Larkspur

$300

Foster City

$0

Reduced from $983

South San Francisco

$300

Fremont

$237

Reduced from $850

American Canyon

$292

Galt

$0

Reduced from $575

Half Moon Bay

$291

Gilroy

$300

Reduced from $769

Danville

$290

Half Moon Bay

$291

Reduced from $335

Concord

$288

Hayward

$300

Reduced from $1,000

Suisun City

$282

Healdsburg

$130

Solano County

$281

Hercules

$533

Reduced from $894

Livermore

$280

Hillsborough

$509

Reduced from $699

Newark

$267

Hollister

$224

San Jose

$261

Lafayette

$250

Redwood City

$261

Larkspur

$300

Reduced from $813

Rohnert Park

$260

Livermore

$280

Winters

$260

Los Altos

$474

Reduced from $869

Atherton

$250

Los Altos Hills

$0

Reduced from $340

Brentwood

$250

Los Gatos

$390

Reduced from $1,287

Brisbane

$250

Marin County

$190

Dublin

$250

Martinez

$158

Reduced from $303

Emeryville

$250

Menlo Park

$0

Reduced from $411

Lafayette

$250

Mill Valley

$3

Moraga

$250

Millbrae

$358

Reduced from $1,180

Orinda

$250

Milpitas

$141

Reduced from $680

Pittsburg

$250

Monte Sereno

$0

Reduced from $569

Scotts Valley

$250

Moraga

$250

Petaluma

$243

Morgan Hill

$222

Reduced from $1,188

Antioch

$243

Mountain View

$152

Reduced from $156

Santa Cruz County

$242

Napa (City)

$364

Reduced from $768

Fremont

$237

Napa County

$401

Reduced from $433

Clayton

$230

Newark

$267

Campbell

$225

Novato

$207

Reduced from $763

Rio Vista

$225

Oakland

$199

Sausalito

$225

Oakley

$303

Reduced from $650

San Mateo (City)

$225

Orinda

$250

Hollister

$224

Pacifica

$334

Increased from $332

Paicines

$224

Paicines

$224

San Benito County

$224

Palo Alto

$327

Increased from $110

San Juan Bautista

$224

Petaluma

$243

Reduced from $513

Tres Pinos

$224

Piedmont

$541

Morgan Hill

$222

Pinole

$300

Reduced from $550

Novato

$207

Pittsburg

$250

Fairfield

$203

Pleasant Hill

$55

Pleasanton

$200

Pleasanton

$200

Oakland

$199

Portola Valley

$50

Davis

$196

Rancho Cordova

$0

Reduced from $493

Contra Costa County

$195

Redwood City

$261

Reduced from $385

Marin County

$190

Richmond

$0

Reduced from $735

San Leandro

$184

Rio Vista

$225

Reduced from $783

Albany

$183

Rohnert Park

$260

Martinez

$158

Ross

$0

Reduced from $125

Belvedere

$155

Sacramento (City)

$0

Reduced from $774

Mountain View

$152

Sacramento County

$0

Reduced from $195

Santa Rosa

$150

San Anselmo

$80

Dixon

$149

San Benito County

$224

Milpitas

$141

San Bruno

$320

Reduced from $1,200

Santa Cruz

$136

San Carlos

$0

Reduced from $922

Capitola

$130

San Francisco

$85

Healdsburg

$130

San Jose

$261

Increased from $220

Benicia

$125

San Juan Bautista

$224

San Rafael

$124

San Leandro

$184

Reduced from $430

Berkeley

$113

San Mateo (City)

$225

Reduced from $1,224

Alameda (City)

$108

San Mateo County

$345

Reduced from $690

San Pablo

$93

San Pablo

$93

Saratoga

$92

San Rafael

$124

Reduced from $386

San Francisco

$85

San Ramon

$387

Colma

$80

Santa Clara (City)

$0

Decreased from $384

San Anselmo

$80

Santa Clara County

$450

Increased from $395

Sebastopol

$75

Santa Cruz

$136

Increased from $125

Walnut Creek

$65

Santa Cruz County

$242

Vacaville

$56

Santa Rosa

$150

Pleasant Hill

$55

Saratoga

$92

Reduced from $95

Portola Valley

$50

Sausalito

$225

Reduced from $552

Tiburon

$35

Scotts Valley

$250

Woodside

$30

Sebastopol

$75

Reduced from $376

Yolo County

$6

Solano County

$281

Reduced from $1,113

Mill Valley

$3

Sonoma (City)

$309

Belmont

$0

Sonoma County

$373

Reduced from $500

Citrus Heights

$0

South San Francisco

$300

Reduced from $825

El Cerrito

$0

St. Helena

$0

Reduced from $700

Elk Grove

$0

Suisun City

$282

Fairfax

$0

Sunnyvale

$339

Reduced from $399

Folsom

$0

Tiburon

$35

Foster City

$0

Tres Pinos

$224

Galt

$0

Union City

$475

Reduced from $1,074

Los Altos Hills

$0

Vacaville

$56

Reduced from $404

Menlo Park

$0

Vallejo

$671

Monte Sereno

$0

Walnut Creek

$65

Rancho Cordova

$0

Watsonville

$399

Increased from $304

Richmond

$0

West Sacramento

$330

Ross

$0

Windsor

$509

Sacramento (City)

$0

Winters

$260

Reduced from $1,298

Sacramento County

$0

Woodland

$395

San Carlos

$0

Woodside

$30

Reduced from $728

Santa Clara (City)

$0

Yolo County

$6

St. Helena

$0

Yountville

$585

Average

$224

Average

$224

7.2 "Solar Friendly" Cities

The following traits are typical of cities with permit fees under $300:

8. Permit Fee Assessment Differences

A city's fee assessment method, its required safety/engineering reviews, and the training of its inspectors have a critical impact on solar permit fees and processing times.

8.1 Fee Assessment Method

Cities typically compute solar permit fees using a flat-fee method, a valuation-based method, or a combination of these methods. The flat-fee method applies the same fee regardless of system cost. The valuation method usually bases fees on the pre-rebate cost of a PV system: the more solar panels one purchases, the higher the fee. A consequence of the valuation method is that the more a homeowner contributes to a city’s renewable energy supply, the more that homeowner must sacrifice financially.

Compared to other home improvement projects, material costs for PV systems are high relative to installation costs. However, those material costs have little bearing on the resources a city must devote to review PV systems of different sizes.

Joseph Doody, former Chief Electrical Inspector for the City of San Jose, said of residential PV systems: "The components are pretty basic there. And no matter how many of the PV arrays they put on a roof, the inspection is pretty much the same." Chester Nakahara, an inspector for the City of Piedmont, agreed that large residential systems typically do not take longer to review or inspect than small ones.

California law compels cities to exempt PV systems when assessing a home's value for property taxes for homeowners who retrofit solar power on their current home. This makes PV more affordable as a home improvement project. Perhaps cities can apply the same rationale in computing solar permit fees. Traditionally, many building departments base permit fees for any project on its valuation. However, for the aforementioned reasons, this approach isn't fair and, as of January 1, 2005, might be illegal when applied to PV systems.

The state government has already passed legislation with the intent to limit permit fees for solar. California Government Code section 66005(a), states: "[development permit] fees or exactions shall not exceed the estimated reasonable cost of providing the service…" On December 22, 2005 the California State Supreme Court upheld this statute by ruling that building permit fees must be based on the "estimated reasonable costs of providing the services for which the fees are charged" (Barratt v. C. of Rancho Cucamonga, Ct.App. 4/2 E032578). (For legal citations on the recently enacted Solar Rights Act state legislation in California, see the information at the end of this report: "California solar access laws as of 2005".)

We recommend that all cities adopt the flat-fee method for assessing solar permit fees. This would reduce the average permit fee for all PV systems but would still cover the cities' review and inspection costs. It would also encourage homeowners to install larger systems that contribute more to their communities’ clean, sustainable energy supply.

8.2 Safety and Engineering Reviews

Each city has its own set of engineering and safety reviews for solar permits. The expensive services tend to be pre-installation reviews of the PV system plan and installation site. Arguably, some such services are unnecessary. For example, the flush-mounted PV systems that most homeowners install have a low-enough weight/area ratio that they cannot overload standard roofs. "They're designed so that most roofs will hold them," said Dan Martin, a Building Department official at Mill Valley. Thus, extensive reviews of such PV systems for load-bearing criteria might be unnecessary. Cities with the most experience in processing solar permits tend to put less emphasis on such reviews and more emphasis on the post-installation inspection.

San Jose foregoes planning reviews for single family and duplex residences. It also foregoes building permits for flush-mounted rooftop installations that do not exceed standard load bearing and wind sheer limits. These criteria are significant because they apply to most PV systems that homeowners install. In other words, San Jose has streamlined its permit process for middle-income buyers. San Jose has also simplified its process for solar contractors by providing samples of the information and diagrams it requires for solar permit applications.

Perhaps the biggest improvement municipalities can make to the review process is to standardize it. Gary Gerber, President of the solar contracting firm Sunlight and Power, said, "A good process would involve some sort of guidelines… preferably something that is done on a state-wide basis." It would also help if all municipalities used the same National Electric Code (NEC), instead of using versions published in different years.

The guidelines that Brooks Engineering developed might be a good starting point for standardizing PV permit requirements:

http://www.irecusa.org/fileadmin/user_upload/NationalOutreachPubs/InspectorGuidelines-Version2.1.pdf

Some commonly used review criteria are now illegal. The California Solar Rights Act was updated in 2005 to prohibit permitting authorities from restricting PV systems based on aesthetic considerations (i.e. the "look" of the system). California Government Code, Section 65850.5(a) states: "It is the intent of the Legislature that local agencies not adopt ordinances that create unreasonable barriers to the installation of solar energy systems, including, but not limited to, design review for aesthetic purposes…" For details on this issue, see the end of this study for the letter of intent about solar permit fees authored by Assembly Member Lois Wolk that was emailed to all California Cities on June 7, 2006.

It follows that cities now have less need for exhaustive plan checks as this applies to visual impacts. A less exhaustive plan check should be less expensive. Therefore, we recommend that cities requiring plan checks revise their permit fees downward to account for the new law.

In sum, a streamlined permit process is also a cheaper process for cities and for solar customers. We recommend that all cities consider how to streamline their solar permit processes to reduce costs. For cities with less experience in processing solar permits, this might entail sending relevant staff to a half- or one-day solar workshop. These workshops would clarify what is and isn't necessary to evaluate PV systems.

8.3 Inspector Training

Inspectors who review PV systems on-site after installation usually charge cities by the hour for their services. Cities pass on those charges to the solar installer, and ultimately to the customer. Therefore, a fast inspector is a cheap inspector. To be fast and thorough, an inspector must be knowledgeable about PV systems. An inspector's expertise is a critical factor controlling both the permit cost and safety of a solar installation. The expertise of the solar installer is probably a more important factor in determining the cost, speed, and quality of a PV system installation, however this is beyond the scope of this study.

Solaris Solar president Jason Jackson said, "Most of the permit offices are seeing enough [PV applications] that their education level as to what they're asking for has increased." Nevertheless, he added, "Every day we run into inspectors who have no idea what they're looking at." By contrast, Jackson praised Berkeley's inspectors as particularly sharp. "They know exactly what they're looking at."

Various organizations sponsor workshops for solar inspectors, including solar contractors/manufacturers, building departments, and the International Association of Electrical Inspectors (IAEI) (see Section 11.3 for more information).

8.4 Permit Process Delays

Customers expect prompt installation when they purchase PV systems. Many people buy them in spring and summer in hopes of activating the systems in time for the year's peak sunshine hours. PV systems activated during these seasons generate proportionately more electricity during peak electric demand times. When the electric meter spins backwards on summer afternoons, money is credited to the PV owner's bill at over three times the rate of night-time usage in PG&E service territory.* Thus, customers have a financial incentive to capture peak summer sunlight. Removing bureaucratic hurdles would encourage timely PV installations that coincide with peak summer electric demand periods, and thereby increase customers’ satisfaction with the installation process.

Many cities understand this financial impact of permit process delays. Mill Valley, Novato, and San Jose all issue solar permits over-the-counter without delays. Unfortunately, some cities require such lengthy review times that a customer who buys PV in the summer can miss that season entirely before the system is permitted, installed, and activated.

Worse, a really complicated permitting process can make some solar projects impossible. Solaris Solar president Jason Jackson said of one installation that the City of San Ramon "didn't want to see this happen at all and just put so many ridiculous restrictions in the way in hopes that we would just give up."

Often high permit fees and slow permitting processes go hand-in-hand. Sunlight and Power president Gary Gerber said, "We've had a few disgruntled customers for whom the permit process was a problem. Mostly it's the people who end up paying a very high permit fee."

8.5 Permit Fee Ceiling

After studying and comparing solar permit processes in different cities, we have determined that ordinary rooftop PV installations need the following reviews to ensure they meet safety and engineering standards:

After reviewing what the cities with the most experience in processing solar permits spend on these services, we recommend $300 as a reasonable ceiling for permit fees.

9. Recommendations

We recommend that all cities reduce their solar permit fees to $300 or less for residential PV systems that are flush-mounted to rooftops. The cities with the most PV experience and streamlined processes take 2–4 hours to permit and inspect such systems. We recommend the following measures for cities that currently charge over $300:

    1. The weight of the solar panels and mounting hardware is under four pounds per square foot.
    2. The weight of the solar array at each attachment point is under 40 pounds
    3. The solar panels are no more than 18 inches off the surface of the roof
    4. The residence was built after the 1940s with adequate rafters or trusses.

Or

The residence was built to meet modern building codes designed to hold the extra weight of a few pounds per square foot (similar to the weight of an extra layer of composite asphalt roofing).

We recommend the following measures for all cities regardless of their current permit fees and processes.

      1. A schematic of the electrical system showing its size and the conduit types and sizes
      2. A roof drawing showing the location of the solar modules relative to the entire roof surface, and specifying the attachment points, rafter size and spacing. It should also mention the quantities and model numbers of the solar modules and inverter(s).

Flush-mounted PV systems should not require professional engineering stamps unless:

Or

Note: Half- to one-day solar workshops for relevant staff can make a critical difference in process expenses. Various organizations sponsor these workshops, including solar contractors/manufacturers, building departments, and the International Association of Electrical Inspectors (IAEI) (see Section 11.3 for more information).

Implementing these changes for a trial period could help resolve any uncertainties about the long-term impact. For example, as part of a three-year pilot program, Sacramento County and the city of Elk Grove recently voted to "waive permit fees, use standardized application packets, review building applications in one day, and conduct post-installation inspections within 24 hours."

10. Conclusion

Currently, Northern California has a massive and growing need for clean, renewable, locally produced energy. Solar electricity is an obvious and fast-growing solution. Federal and state governments recognize this and have passed legislation to encourage the trend. Cities can contribute too, and several have. After we published our first study on PV permit fees (for Silicon Valley), over a dozen of the 42 surveyed towns found ways to reduce their fees. Over an 11-month period, the average fee in the survey area fell 50 percent from $652 to $327!

PV permit fees and processing delays can make a critical difference to some buyers. Much of the costs and delays involved in processing permits reflect misunderstandings about PV systems rather than the realities of installing and inspecting them. Cities can reduce costs and delays for themselves, solar contractors and PV customers by streamlining processes, using a flat-fee permit valuation method, training permit department staff, and standardizing permit requirements.

A permit fee of $300 is a reasonable amount to cover the reviews and inspections a city performs to ensure a standard, flush-mounted, residential PV system meets safety and engineering standards. Reducing fees to this level or lower would persuade more buyers to invest in solar electric technologies. We ask that all cities consider the recommendations in this study to encourage an energy trend that contributes so much to the health and energy security of our communities and the global environment.

11. References

11.1 Contacts

Feel free to contact the creators of this study for more information:

11.2 Download or View the Study Online

You can view this study as a webpage at:

http://lomaprieta.sierraclub.org/global_warming/pv_permit_study.htm

You can download this study as a PDF from: http://lomaprieta.sierraclub.org/global_warming/pv_permit_study.pdf

You can find more information about the campaign to reduce permit fees in the Greater San Francisco Bay Area at:

http://lomaprieta.sierraclub.org/global_warming/fee_study.htm

11.3 How We Conducted the Survey

We describe our methodology for this study and tips on how to perform a similar one at:

PV_Permit_Campaign_Methodology.htm

11.4 More Information About…

11.5 Revision History