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Are local solar regulations really as bad as people make them out to be?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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construction permit for solar arrayThe New York Times recently ran an article on how solar power is getting all caught up in red tape—specifically, local building codes and permitting requirements. My first reaction was: "Darn, I’ve been scooped." I’d been meaning to write about these bureaucratic hassles for over a year, but never got around to it. My second reaction was: "Hey, that’s only half the story." Although much could be done to streamline the process of applying for approval to install panels, the regulations are there for a reason.

I had a love-hate relationship with the mounds of paperwork I had to fill out to install my solar panels. On the one hand, who likes paperwork? On the other, I was grateful for such consumer protections as my town, state, and utility were able to provide. That’s the side of the story the Times article failed to capture.

My ambivalence is a microcosm of what is happening with solar energy right now. As the other costs of installing solar panels come down and the industry scales up, regulatory costs loom larger. Those costs, according to the industry study cited by Times, account for $2,500 of the cost of an average residential or small-scale commercial solar installation, or $0.50 per watt of power-generating capacity. Streamlining and standardizing the procedure would, the study estimated, reduce that to $600. These figures are broadly consistent with data collected by the Vote Solar Initiative. In my own case, the installer had to pay $371 for the building permit, $350 for a structural analysis, and some unspecified but not insubstantial amount to hire people to fill out the forms, drive to town hall to file them (which has to be done in person), confer with inspectors, and spend an evening at a town planning meeting.

For some homeowners, these costs tip the economic balance. "Permitting, especially for small projects, adds a significant cost to a project on the borderline of being affordable," says Sky Stanfield, an attorney at Keyes & Fox in Oakland, a firm that specializes in renewable energy. She adds that people are put off by the time commitment: "As we move past early-adopters, it’ll be harder to ask the average homeowner to sit through the meetings."

Perhaps worse, each town, city, and country in the nation sets its own requirements, and they vary enormously. Confusion reigns. Some officials issue a permit after a fairly minimal check; others require elaborate diagrams and engineering studies. Anecdotes abound of the insolence of office. Architect Rob Strong tells of one local building department that insisted on a full property survey, at a cost of $1,500, even though it was completely irrelevant to the panels’ installation and operation. Engineer Corey Asbill of New Mexico State University recalls a building department that required an I-beam to support the panels, even though the roof was plenty strong already. Greg Sellers, president of Burnham Energy, which consults for solar companies and agencies on permitting and inspection procedures, says some municipalities don’t even state their requirements explicitly, forcing installers to play a guessing game of submitting a permit application over and over until they get it right.

These tales of woe are beginning to resonate. Earlier this week, the California Energy Commission announced a new program to help local officials expedite permitting. Many municipalities in the state have already revamped their process and gotten high marks from the California Solar Energy Industries Association (CALSEIA). Last year, Phoenix—which charged three times more than the Arizona average for a permit—took heed and lowered its fee.

At times, though, methinks installers doth protest too much. When their dealings with officialdom don’t go smoothly, there is plenty of blame to go around, as even many veteran industry insiders accept. "The solar companies aren’t always prepared," says CALSEIA executive director Sue Kateley. "They tend to fuss a lot, but if they can cool their tempers down and talk to the building inspectors, they find, ‘Oh, that’s why they do it that way.’"

For one thing, requirements vary because places vary. Towns have different building vintages, climate conditions, and seismic and flooding hazards. Streamlining and standardizing can only go so far. An area with strong winds, say, may require extra-large screws to mount the panels.

For another thing, installers have been known to mess up paperwork and cut corners on the job. Asbill goes around the country doing spot checks of systems and has assembled a grim catalog of poor workmanship. Some problems are relatively minor (if still potentially dangerous), such as missing safety labels; others are ticking time bombs, such as using indoor-rated screws outside; and some make you scared ever to go near a solar panel again, such as blank spots on the wall where emergency shutoff switches should be. "We’ve seen systems that are so powerful that if you touch the wrong conductor at the wrong time, you’ll be vaporized," he says. "I’ve seen too many people not give them the proper respect."

Indeed, if I have any complaint about my own local officials, it’s not that the permitting process was costly or slow, but that the inspections were perfunctory. At least our building inspector took the trouble to go up onto the roof; many don’t bother to do even that. Who has the time to provide any real oversight anymore? Budget cuts and staff layoffs mean each inspector has to cover more territory. "He has no time at all," Asbill says. "He’s just going going going."

Training is also a factor. Ours was one of the first two solar projects in town, and the inspectors had never seen its like before. They could look for generic electrical screw-ups, but were less attuned to a photovoltaic system’s likeliest failure points. "If PV installers and inspectors were better trained, there would be fewer problems," says Asbill’s colleague John Wiles, who helped write the relevant section of the National Electrical Code.

So there’s work to be done all around. Towns need to hire and train people, adopt standardized regulations, and automate their systems—and if that means they have to charge more for permits, then so be it. "We think a smooth process is more key than saving a hundred dollars on a permit," Sellers says.

Manufacturers can ease installation. "Solar as an appliance" is the buzzword. A meeting organized last June by the Rocky Mountain Institute, which developed a plan to make solar power as cheap as fossil fuels, recommended that equipment be standardized and pre-certified, like a stove or clothes washer.

And installers should get their own house in order. "There’s no reason for there to be inefficiency here," says Adam Browning, executive director of Vote Solar. "It can and should be worked out—remove that sand and replace it with Teflon."

Rights & Permissions

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  1. 1. globacide 9:50 am 02/7/2011


    Nice article!

    You might wanna correct the first link in your article, the one that links to the NY Times.

    In the link’s beginning, the "http://" protocol only has the last letter "p://".

    Keep it up!

    I <3 SciAm!

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  2. 2. gmusser 10:02 am 02/7/2011

    Thanks! Fixed now.

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  3. 3. JamesDavis 1:16 pm 02/7/2011

    In the town I live in, Summersville, WV, they have their ducks in a row. You ask them to see the regulations on installing solar panels and they say, "Say what! What is that?" When you tell them what it is they say, "Oh, don’t worry yourself about that. It will be years before that California stuff makes it this far." For every question you have, they have an answer to discourage you. The federal government needs to implement solar rules into the national building code like they did for electrical wiring when a new home is built and change the rules about plugging your solar panels into the grid.

    If wasn’t for the Republicans, (not to say anything nasty and obscene about them – although that is hard to control right now.)we would already have a national standard rule for installing solar panels and wind turbines on our homes and property. Someone should tell Secretary of Energy Chu to make the rules and make it a national standard so it will relieve some of the burden off the states who have no idea in what they are doing…and tell him, we need that as of yesterday.

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  4. 4. drafter 3:02 pm 02/7/2011

    There goes James again. Trying to blame the republicans when they had nothing to do with this. How do I know this I’m a designer in California where the left controls everything and even though there are International rules California rewrites them all because they think were special. Side bar I’ve dealt with many design review boards and there decisions are often based on feelings and power not rules and if they don’t like you or what you want to do for a client they just change the rules.

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  5. 5. sjamar 4:41 pm 02/7/2011

    George, You’re missing the point. The regs and processes ARE that bad and the local authorities are (often) that ignorant. And the powers that be (pun intended) don’t want solar connected to their grids. And the inspectors either overdo it or don’t really know what they are doing.

    Of course the connection needs to be done properly and the kill switches need to be proper to set things up safely. But the need for correct installation is not what the argument is about — and you know it. This article is better suited to Fox News than SciAm.

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  6. 6. YetAnotherBob 5:06 pm 02/7/2011

    Having worked in the Building Department at the city I live in, I have seen both sides of this.

    Building regulations are adopted after a disaster. The Solar system kills someone, or burns some buildings down. A roof collapse because of the weight of a solar installation can also cause a change in the Building Code.

    Zoning Code issues are caused by neighbor complaints. If what you are putting up is considered an eyesore by the neighbors, it will probably be held to violate the Zoning Code.

    For Solar Cell systems, The National Electrical Code has a section on how to install a Solar System. The International Building Code will be concerned with structural issues, and may be concerned with fire issues on a large structure, or a condominium. These codes have addressed Solar installations for years now. Any given community may or may not have adopted the codes. They also may or may not be aware of what is in the codes. Sometimes a State may adopt a code for the entire state. Their goal is to keep you alive.

    If you are installing such a system, you should have an Architect or Engineer who will handle all of the issues. Most Contractors do not really have the expertise to include the engineering necessary to assure safety.

    One thing to watch for, in a Solar Cell system, the solar cells are a variable voltage, constant current type of device. The voltage at the connection will rise to whatever the cell is capable of until the current level corresponding to the sunlight available is reached. This means that if the unit is isolated or disconnected, the voltage can be quite dangerous. Follow the code, and operate the units only as directed by the Manufacturer.

    Utility operations are usually not a problem. Utilities are required by Federal Regulation to allow small producers (Which such a unit is) to connect to the grid. they may ask you to have two meters. There will be a charge for that.

    As in all other things, the systems is rigged, so that you can’t win.

    Oddly, the Utility feels the same way.

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  7. 7. ormondotvos 6:02 pm 02/7/2011

    Another Fox news SciAm article. What the hell is going on? Having sold and installed solar electric and hot water, as well as a completely off the grid home in the Florida Keys, with AC, freezer, etc., I point to the lazy inspectors. It isn’t hard to write regulations, but you have to hire someone to do it. And you have to pay someone to do it. Federal regulations and pre-certification require federal inspectors, thus relieving the locals of one more job they don’t get right.

    Contrary to the blathering of the author, there shouldn’t be need to worry about "local" vintages, structures or wind conditions. Snow happens, as we’ve seen lately, and a roof that won’t support solar, which is quite light indeed compared to snow, shouldn’t have been passed in the first place.

    Bolt sizes? Are you kidding? You’re talking about roof-piercing attachments here! The technology is ancient, and roofers have pretty much perfected it. And you don’t put solar on a bad roof. Period.

    Where the article is correct is its perception of the bureaucratic nightmare of small-minded incompetent clerks.

    So we fry, freeze and starve with global climate change, because clerks are lazy. Works for me.

    Let’s talk about LFTR now.


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  8. 8. EyesWideOpen 8:19 pm 02/7/2011

    Regulation is a chastity belt on contractors in general. For instance, if a solar installation is too heaven the roof will cave in, the panels crushing the home’s occupants. Fighting regulation is like advocating giving contractors a key to their chastity belts… with all hell breaking loose as the dire consequence.

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  9. 9. EyesWideOpen 8:21 pm 02/7/2011

    Correction to perhaps a Freudian slip:

    Regulation is a chastity belt on contractors in general. For instance, if a solar installation is too heavy the roof will cave in, the panels crushing the home’s occupants. Fighting regulation is like advocating giving contractors a key to their chastity belts… with all hell breaking loose as the dire consequence.

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  10. 10. bucketofsquid 11:24 am 02/10/2011

    Yelling makes you so much more accurate! I believe everything you posted because you used all caps! It didn’t in any way make me think that you are a jackass.

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  11. 11. bucketofsquid 11:33 am 02/10/2011

    I am quite interested in solar energy but the price and complexity are keeping me from doing anything with it for now. I hope to move out of town where the regs are a bit easier. I will require a full set of diagrams and explanation for installation and maintenance. I will probably end up mounting them myself as well. If the manufacturers want to reach a good market size they need to provide a lot more customer support than I have seen from any of them anywhere to date.

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  12. 12. SigmaEyes 1:14 pm 02/10/2011

    Seems like people are suggesting that the electrical aspects of wiring, hook-up, cut-offs, fuses, and lightning protection should be covered in federal building codes. Leaving the mechanical and architectural aspects up to a series of local building codes selected from a list of soil types, max wind/snow loads, etc.

    What would be the problem with that as a strategy?

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  13. 13. SigmaEyes 10:11 pm 02/10/2011

    Most of the rebate / tax incentives require an approved installer. Most of the electrical codes and electrical utility companies force a licensed electrician to do the actual connection to the grid.

    If you think a solar installation is complex, and not easily understood, I would suggest you do not try to tackle it yourself. There are things like putting lightning arrestors in two places in the system, and wind loads, and snow loads to consider in choosing mounting and screw sizes. Even the wire size is calculated according to the distance the solar cells are from the inverter and cut-offs (yes, there are two) and the amount of current flow in amperes. There are zoning restrictions like not breaking the plane of the front facade of the home, and many, many others.

    If you tackle a small system on your own, to learn, use a system of car batteries/PVs/charger/inverter/fuses that is disjointed from the grid. You could even disconnect from the breaker box one of the legs to your home wiring (about 15 amps)outlets/lighting, and connect it to your off grid system, if you size it all correctly. But again, you do not want to set your house on fire, just to learn what an installer does; or electrocute yourself by playing in a fuse box that you know little about.

    Bottom line – you may be far, far better off to pay the installer!

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  14. 14. ikaikaboy 9:50 am 02/12/2011

    I am a full time electrical inspector in Los Angeles,
    and inspect solar systems on a regular basis. There is a national standard-the National Electrical Code-which is adopted on a state by state or sometimes local basis. It is a MINIMUM standard for a safe electrical installation should be adopted as the national standard.
    These projects are not simple do-it yourself projects. If improperly installed, solar dc voltages can reach hazardous levels and greater than the equipment is designed for. Improper wiring can cause shock and fire hazard. Asiles for safe fire department access to the roof must be provided. Backfeeding power into the electrical grid can be a hazard for utility workers without the accessible and clearly labelled disconnecting means. Interconnecting these systems to the electrical grid will involve a utility analysis of the capability of their equipment and conductors to handle increased amperage. As the solar modules get more efficient, more powerful systems are being sold to customers who are not aware that they will need to upgrade the amperage capability of their existing electrical equipment. That involves additional cost, which the solar installers/salesmen may not disclose to the customers. Then the inspector is the bad guy for not signing off the project until the required upgrade is done.
    The same issues arise with the new car charging systems-now there is new substantial additional load being placed on existing electrical equipment that was probably not sized with capability to handle the increased load. Because of advances with energy efficient appliances, our aging utility systems may not have upgraded their equipment.
    Business and individuals installing solar systems are the recipients of rebates and incentives which help offset the cost of the permitting and installation and should be willing to complete the required paperwork.
    The permitting process should be transparent and streamlined, and there may be justification that there is too much red tape in some jurisdictions. The
    inspections should be as thorough as any other
    electrical inspection. The key to all of this is qualified electrical contractors, qualified inspectors and good safe installations. I usually do not get complaints for corrections backed up by the appropriate code section. If you live in an area where permits and inspections are not required or if you think that you do not need to get permits and inspections, you help keep me fully employed. I go on about as many fire damage inspections as solar installations.

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  15. 15. jerrys 10:06 am 02/12/2011

    James, you have no idea what you are talking about (but that’s pretty typical for a Democrat). The government has absolutely nothing to do with creating the building codes; they are created by independent organizations whose members are involved in the construction industry. This includes not only builders, but electricians, plumbers, manufacturers, building inspectors, fire marshals and many others.

    There are a number of different codes, each for different purposes. The National Electric Code governs the electrical end (i.e. installation, wiring), and has for years. The International Residential Code contains structural requirements for single family detached homes, most townhouses, etc. Other codes contain structural requirements for other buildings.

    Each set of codes is on a cycle with new versions coming every three years. Codes regarding solar panels have been in place for years.

    Each jurisdiction (i.e. city, county, etc.) has a choice as to whether it adopts the codes or not, but the vast majority have (a few have adopted different sets of codes). And each jurisdiction has the ability to modify the codes to meet their unique requirements. But to say there are no regulations and then blame it on the Republicans is typical Democrat horse hockey.

    And Joe – so you saw one panel (probably at a retail store) and think that is typical of all panels? I can assure you it is not. While solar panels are expensive to install, they are not anywhere near the $2.50/watt or so you saw. Prices vary widely, depending on many factors, but your price is much higher per watt than a complete system (including inverters and batteries) costs – fully installed.

    No, you’re not going to get a solar system installed on your house for under $1K, and it will take probably 15-20 years to get your investment back. So, if you’re only looking at money over the next six months, it’s not cost effective. But if you’re looking in the long term, it can be a quite cost effective investment.

    However, you miss the biggest advantage – over 40% of the carbon footprint generated by the U.S. is in homes. Widespread use of solar panels can create a significant dent in that footprint – and the need for additional generating capacity and further upgrades to the electrical grid.

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  16. 16. jerrys 10:30 pm 02/15/2011

    We are talking about Solar Power because it is a sustainable, non-polluting form of power. The more ANYONE uses it, the better EVERYONE is.

    As for the "richer becoming richer…". The U.S. provides more foreign aid than any other country in the world. However, we can’t do everything. Other countries must take responsibility for their own citizens.

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