City officials need to stop excessive solar fees

solar fees

How much time does it take to review the smallest change in an approved residential solar project plan set? That was my question for David Lopez, the chief building official in Berkeley, Calif., after his plan checkers charged a $200 fee to review a new weatherproof label that goes on the cover of the electrical service panel.

Lopez pointed across the border at Oakland, where he said solar permit fees are higher. He also noted that while state government code caps solar permit fees, the code places no limit on fees for revisions. And as for the time spent reviewing the new label and corresponding plans?

“It takes a lot of staff time, even though you say it’s small,” Lopez told me. “By the time it goes through the whole process of getting issued and reviewed and stuff like that, and additional inspections out in the field, we do charge an hour, which is $200.”

There was no additional inspection in my case. But the point here isn’t really about my project at all.

The point is this: I’ve worked with over a hundred building officials, first responders, contractors, product manufacturers, and test lab engineers who are enabling affordable clean energy in a safe and efficient manner. When a municipality hides from accountability and stands firm on its right to charge excessive solar permit fees, it not only puts contractors and the public in an antagonistic stance with the building department, it drives up the cost of clean energy.

$200 fee to review a weatherproof label

Contractors sometimes say that permitting and inspections can be unpredictable. Outcomes too often depend on the individual holding the clipboard rather than a uniform set of rules.

On large projects, design and engineering teams carefully evaluate site conditions to minimize risk of additional review for already approved plans.

In residential solar, system designers rely mostly on satellite imagery to decide how many solar panels can fit on the roof and how to configure them. Once installers get on the roof, they measure and mark the solar array boundaries. The markings show where to place equipment, preserving a path for firefighters to climb on the roof in case of emergency. They can also verify that no roof obstructions will interfere with the solar installation.

My project placed solar panels across three sections of pitched roof and one section of almost-flat roof. After marking the arrays, I moved one east-facing panel to the south-facing roof. In the original location, it turned out that the panel frame would have been close enough to scrape the flat roof. By switching the south-facing panels from one row in portrait orientation to two rows in landscape, there was room to add one more panel.

Here’s the initial label and the revised label showing a change in the solar array layout, a common practice in residential solar.

solar design plan
Initial solar design
Solar design plan
Revised design. One panel from an east-facing array to the south-facing array and reoriented the south-facing array 90 degrees.

The approved plan set showed 14 types of warning labels to stick on solar and electrical equipment, including the weatherproof label with the array map.

You can fail inspection if the array map doesn’t match the roof layout. Risk of a failed inspection wasn’t the only reason I asked for a revised permit. I believe solar professionals have to communicate openly with building officials if we expect building officials to cooperate on solar energy deployment.

SolSmart not always enough

Some of my interactions with the planning department met my expectation of Berkeley, a city with a SolSmart Gold designation. Municipalities achieve SolSmart designations by following national best practices for encouraging solar energy growth, such as by cross-training permitting and inspections staff on solar projects and streamlining approval for small projects.

Here is the timeline of my experience:

  • The planning department issued my initial permit without undue delay. The initial fee was $127. I posed a couple questions to a building inspector prior to inspection, and I received prompt and helpful responses each time.
  • A plan checker then told me the revised permit would cost $200 — with no supporting documentation.
  • After I paid the fee, collected the revised permit, and passed inspection, I posed a few more questions over the phone, at the counter, and by email.
  • Lopez, the chief building official, took the time to look up solar permit fees in Oakland, El Cerrito, Albany, and San Leandro to underscore his point that the fees I paid were comparatively low. He also took the time to cite California Government Code Section 66015 as the authority on solar permit fees.
  • He declined to tell me how much time staff spent reviewing my application for a permit revision.

As for the solar array design revisions, my system designer spent about 15 minutes revising the plans. The scope of the revision was so small, he charged me nothing.

Cities should be more accountable for solar fees

Jeff Cook, a renewable energy policy and market analyst at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), works on reducing the cost and complexity of small-scale solar project deployment through programs like SolSmart. Cook also supports the rollout of instant, automated solar permitting through SolarAPP+, a solution that’s now available in 150 municipalities, including Berkeley.

Some communities that have adopted SolarAPP+ have reduced or eliminated revision fees, because the platform eliminates staff time needed for plan review, Cook told me. Others have kept revision fees to cover staff time needed to process records for public access.

For communities that charge revision fees, Cook said, “I believe most communities’ permitting departments must get those fees approved by city council, mayor, [or] city manager depending on their governance structure. In those situations, permitting departments must justify those costs based on labor hours.”

When contractors and homeowners blow the whistle on municipalities charging permit fees above the state’s $450 limit for small residential projects, California Solar and Storage Association Permitting Director Dara Yung investigates.

As of mid-May 2024, Yung was monitoring nine cities and one county that appear to be out of compliance, including:

  • Fresno with a reported charge of more than $2,000 for a solar-plus-storage project,
  • San Jose with a reported $1,500 charge for a solar-plus-storage project, and
  • Livermore with a reported charge of $968.50 plus a $212.16 revision fee for a project with solar, storage, and a new 125-amp subpanel.

Municipalities that have adopted SolarAPP+ effortlessly report on permits issued and estimated time savings from automated permitting. They should also report on permit fees collected, including revision fees. All municipalities should.

Local leaders and state representatives ought to hold municipalities to a higher standard.

Matthew Hirsch is a resident of Berkeley, Calif., and the owner of TerraCurrent, a Berkeley-based marketing agency.

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