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Residential Solar Installation Permits - Sonoma County

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Residential Solar Installation Permits

Sonoma County Streamlines Process

Newly standardized solar permitting unveiled for Sonoma County

Solar Sonoma County leads public‐private effort to reduce solar costs

By Lori Houston

Permitting for residential solar projects throughout Sonoma County is about to become simpler and more streamlined than ever. Local building inspectors, fire safety officials, and solar installers worked together over the past year to produce a newly revised, standardized Residential Rooftop Solar Permit and process that reduces administrative burden while satisfying the needs and requirements of all stakeholders. Separate building and fire department requirements and fees for some jurisdictions have now been eliminated completely. Solar permitting throughout the county is now a singular process with one fee.

“This is part of a nationwide campaign to reduce the ‘soft costs’ of solar,” says Alison Healy, executive director of Solar Sonoma County, referring to solar installation costs apart from hardware and equipment. “We are continuing the important work that Solar Sonoma County had already started long before this became such a popular cause.”

Solar Sonoma County is part of a larger, regional collaboration funded by the U.S. Department of Energy’s SunShot Initiative to make solar energy cost competitive with other forms of energy by 2020. As one critical aspect of this, standardized permitting contributes to reducing costs through faster solar project approvals, more predictable installation timelines, and more efficient utilization of industry and public resources. A nationwide permitting study released by the DOE in December 2012 found that difficult permitting processes add to the cost of solar and are limiting the solar market.

Sonoma County already had a uniform residential solar permit in place, one of Solar Sonoma County’s early achievements back in 2009 toward removing policy and cost barriers to broader local adoption of solar energy. Although all 10 local jurisdictions in the county had accepted the original uniform solar permit and guidelines spearheaded by the Redwood Empire Association of Code Officials (REACO), unfortunately knowledge of the permit and the consistent use of it among building officials and solar installers later proved to be a persistent challenge. Also, variations in interpretation of the California State Fire Marshall guidelines introduced in 2010 led to inconsistencies in local jurisdiction approvals of roof‐top residential solar projects.

“The original uniform permit needed to be redesigned due to changes and new technologies in the solar industry, political pressure to lower the soft costs of installing solar, and evolving requirements of local jurisdictions that were not all on board,” explains Jeff Mathias of Synergy Solar, a member of the Solar Sonoma County Board of Directors who participated on the permitting committee. 

Solar Sonoma County convened the countywide permitting working group, which met over the last year. Building on the successes of the previous uniform permit process, the revised Residential Rooftop PV Permit and Guidelines for Sonoma County now include: 

- Fulfillment of both state and local fire official requirements towards greater standardization and safety.

- Elimination of the 5‐kilowatt size limit for residential, roof‐top systems in response to solar installation trends concerning typical project size and emerging technologies. 

- Accommodates solar projects for multiple residential units to enable solar for garages, barns, or other outbuildings.

- Enhanced usability with a new, electronically available (pdf) and simplified format.

- More useful, efficient worksheet that includes system performance and AC/DC disconnect data and signage. 

While the eliminated project size cap and reduced paperwork helps reduce project costs associated with permitting, Mathias believes the process to create the new guidelines also represents an important shift for Sonoma County. “Installers, building inspectors, and fire officials are all on the same page. We wanted to set the bar high for solar installations and eliminate unnecessary steps.”

A lot has changed since Solar Sonoma County initially introduced the uniform permit, acknowledges Steve Pantazes, Chief Building Official for the Town of Windsor, who spearheaded the original effort. “Code officials have had this huge learning curve over the last few years with solar. It took some time to get building inspectors familiar with this and our comfort level has changed quite a bit,” he notes.

Because of new solar companies entering the local market in recent years, many contractors were not using the uniform permit because they simply didn’t know about it, Pantazes adds. “Contractors installing solar systems now are more comfortable with building official enforcement and application practices. They’re bringing in more complete permit packages now because they understand better what we’re looking for. We’ve all learned a lot.”

Along with Healy, Mathias, and Pantazes, the permitting committee consisted of Tom Bickford, Gaia Energy Systems; Mark Baldassari, Enphase Energy; Kris Kuntz, City of Cloverdale; Michael Whitaker, City of Santa Rosa; Wayne Wirick, City of Sonoma; Glenn Schainblatt, City of Sebastopol; DeWayne Starnes, County of Sonoma; Roberta MacIntyre, Assistant Fire Marshal, County of Sonoma; Tony Gossner, Fire Marshall, City of Santa Rosa; and Brian Yuen, SSC.

Solar Sonoma County is developing a web site that enables a pdf version of the uniform solar permit application to be completed electronically. The site will also highlight the permitting policies, hours of operation, procedures, and unique requirements of each jurisdiction. The end goal is to transition to a fully electronic solar permitting. “Now that we have a standard, we can begin the process toward electronic permit submission, eliminating the need for installers to submit hard copy applications to each permit office in person,” Mathias says. “A few jurisdictions do not even offer over‐the‐ counter permitting services, which makes electronic submittal even more sensible.”

Based on current permit volume in Sonoma County, online permitting would save an estimated $800,000 annually just from eliminating the need to scan paper applications and enabling building departments to track and archive permits electronically. In addition to greater administrative efficiency, these changes would offer additional environmental benefits because of fewer driving trips to permit offices (CO2 reduction) and dramatically reduced paper use.

“The big picture we are aiming for is standardized, 100% online permitting throughout Sonoma, Marin and Napa counties,” says Healy. “We will continue to work on this in 2013 as part of the regional collaboration funded by the U.S. Department of Energy. Solar Sonoma County has always understood that collaboration is essential to our collective ability to have meaningful conversation and move forward together.” 

Solar Sonoma County

Solar Sonoma County is a nonprofit consortium of local businesses, elected officials, city governments, and individuals who are dedicated to leading local communities to install new solar capacity and improve energy efficiency. SSC supports solar and energy efficiency‐related policy issues, educates and trains community members in the field, advocates for a rapidly growing industry, and acts as a clearinghouse for local and regional clean energy activity. Since its inception, SSC has captured nationwide attention as a model for local communities toward reducing greenhouse gas emissions. For more information, visit solarsonomacounty.org.