Monday, September 25, 2006

Solar Energy Permit Process Eased

Solar Energy Permit Process Eased
By Erin Pursell/Staff Writer

County officials just made it easier for local contractors to promote solar energy.
By altering its permit fee structure, Solano's building department will be able to issue permits for rooftop photovoltaic systems - an alternative energy source increasing in demand as energy costs climb - cheaper and faster.

The revisions were welcome news to Jerry Huff, president of CJ Solar Inc. in Vacaville.

"I think it's great if the county is going to restructure how they do their permit process," he said, noting that Solano's

permits have long been more costly and inaccessible than neighboring jurisdictions. "That has been one of the biggest problems with doing these projects in the county."

The revised plans bring costs in line with what they should be, according to county building official David Cliche, who was one of the driving forces behind the changes.

For example, he said, the permit fee for a project valued at $40,000 has been reduced from $1,400 to about $270.

The efforts have already been praised by the Sierra Club, which urged Solano to change its fee structure after conducting a region survey that indicated the county's unusually high prices.

"I'd like to congratulate them on making those changes," said Kurt Newick, chair of the club's Loma Prieta Chapter Global Warming and Energy Committee. Newick led efforts to urge Northern California counties to ease the cost of permits. "To support solar we really need affordable permit fees."

Historically, the county has required multiple building and electrical reviews and plan checks for solar projects, all of which came with additional costs.

"(Solano was) way higher than any other county in the greater Bay Area," Newick said.

As photovoltaic technology has advanced, the arrays have become lighter and less cumbersome, requiring less review of the structural integrity of the building they will be mounted on. Because of this it was easy to simplify the process, according to Cliche.

"We're reclassifying it (the permit) from building and electric to strictly electric," he said. "We've eliminated all the other divisions' plan checks."

This means that contractors now only need electric permits for their projects, which significantly speeds up timelines that often stall during reviews.

"We've expedited it from a four- to five-day plan check to right over the counter," Cliche said.

Contractors like Huff said that county permits have generally taken much longer to obtain than city permits.

"My last permit for an add-on solar system was more than $1,217 when I applied for it on June 12 and it wasn't issued until July 10," Huff said.

However, the reclassification only applies to residential projects, and does not affect the ground-mounted solar arrays that Cliche said are more common in Solano.

Ground or hillside systems, which many people choose to install due to lack of available roof space, require construction of a platform to be mounted on, whereas rooftop arrays are placed on existing structures.

"Someone has to review this to make sure they're designing these things accordingly," Cliche said, adding that engineers check to make sure ground projects aren't constructed over septic tanks or leech fields.

Ground and hillside projects also require more trenching and concrete work than rooftop projects, which bring additional reviews that come with additional costs.

"I understand them not doing an over the counter (review) on a hillside (system) because that would need to be checked out by an engineer," Huff said.

While the revisions don't apply to all types of solar projects, building officials and contractors seem to agree that the move is a step forward at a time when finding alternative energy sources is becoming more critical.

"The benefits are undeniable," Huff said.

Erin Pursell can be reached at

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