When people talk about rooftop solar power, they talk about efficiency: energy efficiency in general, solar panel efficiency in specific, and the cost efficiency of spending thousands up front for a promised payback years down the line. Hardware costs have plummeted while photovoltaic quality has improved markedly in recent years, increasing efficiency on multiple fronts. Yet one aspect of rooftop solar installation has lagged far behind: paperwork and permitting processes, which not only vary wildly from one city to the next, but have only grown in complexity and cost.
Believing these glaring inefficiencies have stifled the local solar industry, the East Bay Green Corridor has made it its mission to stamp them out. “We feel that streamlining the solar permitting process will lead to greater penetration,” said Carla Din, director of the East Bay Green Corridor. And she doesn’t take that lightly. In September 2010, a vote by the corridor’s twelve principals identified establishing a regional solar-energy permitting process as its top policy priority.
The goal is to promote economic development by making it easier for solar contractors and homeowners who are currently forced to navigate a veritable maze of regulations pertaining to documents and diagrams, permit fees and processes, turnaround times, and much more. “If you imagine dealing with different requirements in every city,” Din said, “it’s just mind-boggling.”
Shortly after the East Bay Green Corridor decided to attack the byzantine process, a chance meeting between Din and Eric Alderman, founder and CEO of San Leandro-based software company SolarNexus, further greased the wheels of progress. Seeing an opportunity to remove some big boulders from the residential solar-energy stream, Alderman set out independently in 2009 to develop software and online solutions for the nation’s solar industry geared in part toward reducing so-called soft costs derived from paperwork and administrative overhead.
“If we’re gonna really reduce the cost low enough that solar can be widely adopted and really have an impact on energy use in this country,” Alderman said, “then we’re going to have to work on these soft costs in addition to the hardware costs.”
And soft costs are significant. Among East Bay cities, permit fees alone range from as little as zero to as high as $300, while time and money spent by solar installers shuttling paperwork back and forth, meeting with city staff, and waiting on-site for multiple inspectors adds many hundreds more. These costs — and, ultimately, the frustration of accruing them over multiple days and even weeks — are often passed on to the consumer.
Danny Kennedy, co-founder and president of Oakland-based residential solar contractor Sungevity, says that back-office labor costs related to handling permits and paperwork are now equivalent to those associated with the actual installation. “It’s the variability and uncertainty,” he said.
One particularly frustrating example is the distance panels are allowed to be placed from the roof’s ridgeline, he said, which differs almost arbitrarily from city to city. “Not only do they have different rules, but they often change the rules or make stuff up on the fly,” he explained. “It’s your classic case of red tape getting in the way of innovating and entrepreneurship.” Kennedy and Alderman have joined in supporting the East Bay Green Corridor’s efforts to standardize permitting processes, providing expertise in their respective areas. The three organizations have also come together — along with PG&E and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory — as a regional team competing in the 2011 California Great Solar Challenge, a contest launched last month by Silicon Valley agency SolarTech that calls for cities and other jurisdictions to reduce soft costs and administrative inefficiencies. Statewide, such efforts could reduce process-related costs by as much as 60 percent, Din said.
The federal government is getting in on the act, too. President Barack Obama‘s SunShot Initiative, managed by the Department of Energy, differs from previous solar-development efforts by taking aim at installation and permitting costs — and handing out grants to innovators in that arena. Din said the East Bay Green Corridor is actively seeking grants to support its permitting process project, but has not received any to date. That’s okay, because the effort is still in its earliest stages. Din and her team are currently in the midst of gathering detailed information on member cities’ various practices.
Simultaneously, SolarNexus is developing an online database of forms, policies, procedures, and diagrams. By fall the Green Corridor should have prepared its standardized guidelines, and by the end of the year they should be instituted throughout the East Bay. After that, Green Corridor administration will continue to provide support while gathering metrics on cost and time savings. SolarNexus, meanwhile, hopes to expand its localized database to a national scale.
The East Bay Green Corridor was established in 2007 to foster regional collaboration in green technology, innovation, and entrepreneurship. Its members include the cities of Alameda, Albany, Berkeley, El Cerrito, Emeryville, Oakland, Richmond, and San Leandro, plus UC Berkeley, the Lawrence Berkeley lab, California State University East Bay, and the Peralta Community College District.
“We hear from more solar companies than any others that are interested in siting here,” Din said. “We think that there’s a great potential to positively impact the industry.”