2011-04-06 "Napa reduces solar panel fees" by ALISHA WYMAN from "Napa Register" newspaper
In an effort to encourage green energy, the Napa City Council agreed Tuesday to dramatically decrease its permit fees for businesses and residents seeking to install solar panels.
A 2010 report by the Sierra Club revealed Napa’s fees were much higher than some nearby towns such as Yountville and American Canyon, and well over the amount that Napa needed to charge to cover its costs for commercial permits.
The city will now charge a flat fee of $299.55 for residential permits, down from the previous $391 fee.
Commercial permits will now be based on staff’s time needed for plan review and approval, instead of the project’s value.
For example, a permit for a 131-kilowatt project valued at $792,000 will now cost $1,219, instead of the more than $10,000 estimated by the Sierra Club. A 131 kW-sized project would power a typical grocery store.
Councilman Mark van Gorder said he was grateful for the grassroots effort that prompted the city to reduce the fees.
“I think this is going to hopefully encourage more people to ... install photo voltaics,” he said.
The permit fees came to the city’s attention after officials began looking at ways to encourage solar panel installation, said Cassandra Walker, the city’s Community Development director.
A Sierra Club report pointed out that Napa’s fees were out of line with surrounding cities.
A committee of the Loma Prieta chapter of the Sierra Club has been evaluating permit fees in the Bay Area and Southern California for the past seven years, said Kurt Newick, committee chairman and author of the report.
He has found that cities are arbitrary in how they determine fees for commercial permits and usually base it on the value of the panels.
“They are very expensive relative to the time and effort it takes for the city to approve a permit,” he said.
The time needed to review an application isn’t tied linearly to the system’s size, the report says. Contrary to what the city’s fees would imply, a 100 kW system doesn’t take 10 times more time to review than a 10 kW system does, the Sierra Club said.
In the reports, Newick uses an Excel fee calculator for commercial projects that a retired deputy building official for San Jose constructed. It is based on the time it takes to review the permit process.
Newick was thrilled that the city council approved changes in the fees and is adopting use of the calculator.
“I’m very impressed with the leadership in the city of Napa for so whole-heartedly embracing our Sierra Club solar panel fee recommendations,” he said.
The permit fee change might not have instant results, but studies show that government policies can steer society to certain technology or solutions, he said.
“It’s not going to be that the next week everyone floods the office to get a permit, but over time you will see a difference,” he said.
Solar panels offer a way for towns to become more independent in energy production, as well helping society steer away from non-renewable energy sources, he said.
“We need to convert over our society to clean energy sources so we can thrive as a civilization,” Newick said. “Otherwise, we might be come extinct.”
Despite the high fees, Napa and the surrounding county have distinguished themselves as being a high producer of solar energy.
In 2007, Napa won an award from the NorCal Solar Energy Association for generating more energy per capita from photo-voltaic sources than other comparable cities in Northern California. Napa County and St. Helena also won the award.
Napa is trying to become a green city and is happy to take one more barrier out of the way for businesses helping to achieve that goal, Councilman Peter Mott said.
It shows that government can be reactive to inequities, he said.
Councilwoman Juliana Inman agreed, adding that the city has reduced fees in other areas as well.
“It’s a good demonstration of the fact that the city is reasonable about these things,” she said.