Oakland mayor Jean Quan speaks in support of a new streamlined solar permitting process across nine cities of the Bay Area.
Oakland Mayor Jean Quan speaks in support of a new streamlined solar permit process across nine Bay Area cities, at Sungevity’s Jack London Square offices. Photo: Julia Hannafin
Oakland Mayor Jean Quan speaks in support of a new streamlined solar permit process across nine Bay Area cities, at Sungevity’s Jack London Square offices. Photo: Julia Hannafin

By Julia Hannafin

On Tuesday, nine East Bay cities announced a new streamlined solar permitting process designed to save homeowners up to $3,500 per solar photovoltaic system.

Members of the East Bay Green Corridor, Sungevity, Inc., and the state Office of Economic Development met at Sungevity’s Oakland offices to announce a new set of permitting guidelines that will be used in all the cities in the corridor: Berkeley, Oakland, Richmond, Emeryville, Alameda, Albany, El Cerrito, Hayward and San Leandro. The new streamlined permits, scheduled to take effect by Sept. 22, will also eliminate the need to hire an expensive structural engineer, which will save time, money and boost the solar industry, advocates said.

“What these guidelines do is allow homeowners to bypass the expensive structural engineering process,” said Carla Din, director of the East Bay Green Corridor. “When you put a system on your roof, there’s sometimes uncertainty about whether or not your rafters can support the modules, and so you bring in an outside structural solar engineer. What we did is come up with a prescriptive process that would apply to 80-95% of the homes in the Green Corridor and could save up to $3,500.”

The East Bay Green Corridor was established in 2007 by the nine cities and UC Berkeley, the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, California State University East Bay and Peralta Community College District.

While the Bay Area has been a leader in the creation and accessibility of green technology, the soft costs of getting a solar panel system have made the process unattainable for many Berkeley homeowners. For many years, to get a residential solar system, homeowners had to go through the expensive process of hiring a structural engineer to assess their home.

Different cities also had different requirements and the burdensome paperwork contributed to the cost of installation.

Three issues made the previous process of getting a solar system installed expensive and lengthy. Code officials weren’t able to to determine whether or not the proposed system would be structurally sound, so contractors and homeowners had to turn to a structural engineer. Solar support components manufacturers are only responsible for the array on the roof, not for the ability of the roof to support it.

In late 2010, under the leadership of Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates, mayors of the nine cities got together with the director of the Lawrence Berkeley Lab, and the chancellors of UC Berkeley and Cal State East Bay, and identified standardized solar permitting as their number one policy priority.

The effort to create the streamlined solar permitting process was highly collaborative, requiring participation from both those on the structural side and those on the bureaucratic side of the process. The permitting process was standardized and a set of innovative structural guidelines for the PV systems was created.

Going forward, there will be over-the-counter permitting in six of the cities, and quick turnaround application and approval processes for the remaining three. Hanging in the future is a promise to put the process online.

The new guidelines include three main elements: the solar checklist, the standard electrical plan and the structural guidelines, accompanied by the technical analysis. Each city will have its own application page as part of the packet, in part because the cities all have slightly different fees for the permit application; the average fee is $236. Some of the cities are choosing to subsidize the fees.

Andrew Birch, chief executive of Sungevity, spoke of how the initiative is already translating oversees, calling it an important innovation for the entire country’s solar economy, “Sungevity has taken some of the innovations we’ve created here in this Oakland office across a few new markets already, namely in Europe and Australia. The cost of a solar system in Europe and Australia today is about 50% of the cost of a U.S. solar system. Same technology.”

“This is the beginning of a system of streamlining for these nine cities that we believe could be replicated and spread across the country to make solar more accessible and affordable,” he said.

Low-cost solar power could supply more than a third of all energy needs in the western United States if the nation can hit its targets for reducing the cost of solar energy, claimed a new study by researchers at the U.C. Berkeley.

Many of the speakers Tuesday morning described the initiative’s potential to be expanded on a state-wide and eventually national scale.

Julia Hannafin is a summer intern at Berkeleyside and a student at Columbia University studying creative writing and American studies. She writes for the music blog The Metropolitan Jolt.

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