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North Bay Business Journal

Monday, February 11, 2013, 6:50 am

Sonoma County streamlines solar permitting

By Loralee Stevens, Special to the Business Journal

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    Solar permitting throughout Sonoma County is now a singular process with one fee, solar advocates announced.

    The new, simplified rules were produced by a county-wide permitting committee working with local building inspectors, fire safety officials, and solar installers for over a year, according to Alison Healy, executive director of Solar Sonoma, a nonprofit, public-private consortium.

    Sonoma County residents and solar installers have long complained about cumbersom requirements for rooftop solar systems, involving separate fees and paperwork for each agency.

    For some of the 10 county jurisdictions, separate building and fire department requirements have now been eliminated entirely; for all jurisdictions a single fee and form, downloadable from the computer, is in place.

    “This is part of a nationwide campaign to reduce the ‘soft costs’ — apart from hardware and equipment — of solar,” said Ms. Healy.

    Solar Sonoma County (solarsonomacounty.org) 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. A nationwide permitting study released by the DOE in December 2012 found that the difficulty of the permitting processes adds to the cost of solar and limits the solar market.

    Sonoma County already had a uniform residential solar permit in place within its jurisdiction, but it was inconsistently used by building officials and solar installers. New California State Fire Marshall guidelines introduced in 2010 added to the confusion, said Jeff Mathias of Synergy Solar, a member of the Solar Sonoma County board of directors who participated on the permitting committee.

    “The original uniform permit needed to be redesigned in light of new state requirements and technologies, as well as rising political pressure,” he said.

    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.

    “This represents an important shift for Sonoma County,” said Mr. Mathias. “For the first time installers, building inspectors, and fire officials are all on the same page. We wanted to set the bar high.”

    According to Steve Pantazes, chief building official for the town of Windsor, “Code officials 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.

    “Also, contractors installing solar systems 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.”

    Up next is an electronic application process. Solar Sonoma County is developing a web site that enables the downloadable pdf version of the uniform solar permit application to be completed online. The site will also highlight the permitting policies, hours of operation, procedures and unique requirements of each jurisdiction.

    “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 said. “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 and file paper applications.

    “The big picture we are aiming for is standardized, 100 percent online permitting throughout Sonoma, Marin and Napa counties,” said Ms. Healy.

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