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Bill Streamlining Solar Permitting Process Advances in California, Faces Opposition

Assembly Bill 2188 cuts the red tape in getting small, roof-top, residential solar energy systems approved. But local governments are wary of the safety impacts an expedited approval process may have.

by / June 4, 2014
Permits to add and inspections of small, rooftop residential solar systems like those pictured above would be streamlined under legislation proposed by California Assemblyman Al Muratsuchi. Flickr/Michael Mazengarb

Local governments in California have banded together to stand against streamlining the permitting process for residential solar energy systems, citing safety and manpower concerns.

Assembly Bill 2188
requires cities and counties to cut the residential solar permit application review period in half – from 60 days to 30 – and mandates that inspections of solar systems be done within five business days of a request. The measure also requires local government bodies to adopt an ordinance to expedite the residential installation of solar technology by Sept. 30, 2015.

“Counties fully support California’s focus on renewable energy and the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, and have often worked to help streamline and expedite the permitting process,” said Nate Beason, chair of the Rural County Representatives of California (RCRC) and a Nevada County supervisor. “This legislation, however, puts public safety at risk and places impossible demands upon counties who have been experiencing significant reductions in staffing, revenue and resources.”

The RCRC is joined by the California State Association of Counties (CSAC) and the League of California Cities in opposing AB 2188, which is sponsored by Assemblyman Al Muratsuchi, D-Torrance. The bill passed the California Assembly last month and is currently being reviewed in the state Senate.

A press release issued by Muratsuchi’s office cites a recent study by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory that revealed a modernization of solar permitting processes by using Web-based or electronic submission can reduce the price of a residential solar project by approximately $1,000.

In an interview with Government Technology, Muratsuchi said that he’s aware of the local government criticism of AB 2188. But he felt certain home improvement projects like small rooftop residential solar systems should be evaluated in a more efficient manner.

Muratsuchi explained that in the most current version of the bill, while a permit would have to be issued as a ministerial matter, it hinges on the checklist and ordinance designed by local governments themselves.

“I have been emphasizing to my colleagues in the Legislature that it’s up to the local jurisdictions to come up with their own streamlined checklist in order to issue permits,” Muratsuchi said. “This process is already being done in many cities and counties, including the city of Los Angeles, the city of San Jose and San Diego County. It can be done and it’s already being done.”

Still, municipal advocates are pushing back on the bill, arguing that it gives special treatment for to the solar industry at the expense of other building permit seekers. The League of California Cities identified a number of negative impacts AB 2188 would have on cities and residents, including potentially raising permit fees and limiting the ability of a municipality to inspect a solar installation more than once.

In a letter to members of the California Assembly on May 27, League Legislative Representative Jason Rhine explained that AB 2188 would remove local government discretion.

“By eliminating the review process for solar permits and instead requiring local jurisdictions to issue a solar permit in a ministerial manner upon receipt of a completed application, cities would be prohibited from involving their fire department or utility department in the permit approval process, thus removing a jurisdiction’s ability to verify that no fire hazards are present and the installation complies with all applicable fire codes prior to installation,” Rhine wrote.

Muratsuchi was confident, however, that the bill would appeal to members of the Senate on the basis that it is pro-business and environmentally-friendly.

“There are concerns that stakeholders like our city and building officials continue to raise, but we have been negotiating in good faith and … while we want to streamline the permitting and inspection process, we do not want to compromise any building or fire safety concerns.”

At press time on June 3, AB 2188 had been assigned to the California Senate Committee on Rules.

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Brian Heaton

Brian Heaton was a writer for Government Technology magazine from 2011 to mid-2015.

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