The 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."