California Jurisdictions Underscore the Need for Permitting Best Practices

Passed by the California legislature and approved by the governor last fall, SB 1222 places a cap of $500 on permitting fees local governments can charge on residential rooftop solar energy systems. The law, which also sets a $1000 cap on commercial installations, aims to make the installation of solar energy systems timely and cost-effective. Despite this recent law, it seems a few California jurisdictions have been enforcing costly and outdated permit requirements. An article published in Palm Springs’ The Desert Sun last month highlighted the difficulties some local governments have had in complying with the state law. While the state law provides exceptions to these caps – allowing local governments to charge higher fees for larger solar installations or in cases where the actual cost to the city or county for reviewing and approving an application exceeds the state limits – and many of the jurisdictions in question have since indicated they will take steps to comply with the new law, that these difficulties persist even in solar-savvy California underscores the need  for the resources, best practices, and technical assistance services the Solar Outreach Partnership provides.

While high permitting fees are a hindrance to solar installers, another significant barrier is the inconsistency of permitting policies between cities. Cities vary greatly in permitting rules and regulations for solar installations. Having a more standardized permitting system would help lower costs and increase efficiency for the installer. The high level of variation among permitting policies has often created the need for installers to hire personnel to deal exclusively with permitting. A Clean Power Finance study of 273 residential social installers found that one in three installers avoids selling solar in new markets because of difficulties with permitting. The same study found that the solar permitting process usually involves between two and five distinct agencies. With each agency added, installers have to deal with more paperwork, delays, and increased cost. Furthermore, the study also notes that more than 10% of installations occur in areas where solar permitting rules and requirements have not been set. To combat this, local governments and other authority-having jurisdiction need to update their permitting processes to keep pace with the solar market.

In order to improve the solar permitting process, there not only needs to be better communication between local governments and installers, but between state and local governments as well. Local governments should improve the transparency of their permitting process and provide installers with the information they need to understand this process before they apply for a permit. Rules, regulations, and forms could be posted on a city’s website so that installers can increase their efficiency and speed up the permitting process.  Similarly, state governments should endeavor to make laws clearer and more apparent to local governments.  In one of the cities mentioned in the Desert Sun article, the community development director stated that the he was not aware of the California state law setting caps on permitting fees until an installer informed him. Permitting staff in another city in the region thought the state law set a cap on only basic fees, when the law applies to all charges related to the application process. Such lack of communication often comes at the expense of the time and cost required to install these systems.

Local governments can also help improve the solar permitting process by eliminating unnecessary fees that are unrelated to solar. The city of Palm Springs, for example, charges both a technology fee and a “public art” fee for its solar permits. Conversely, the city of Blythe charges a single solar permitting fee of $50. Eliminating unnecessary fees will not only lower the overall cost of going solar for consumers, but will send a signal to area solar installers that a community is open for business.

Making the permitting process more standardized, transparent, and cost-effective is a vital step in bringing more solar to a community. Learn how the Solar Outreach Partnership can help your community improve its solar permitting processes and address other solar soft costs by visiting our resources page or by submitting a request for complimentary technical assistance.