Current and Best Practices: Taking the Red Tape Out of Green Power

The Network for New Energy Choices (NNEC) held a press conference on September 22nd and released Taking the Red Tape Out of Green Power: How to Overcome Permitting Obstacles to Small-Scale Distributed Renewable Energy, a report that provides seven sets of recommendations for overcoming hurdles to widespread deployment of distributed renewable energy, focusing on the most common technologies – solar photovoltaics (PV) and small wind turbines. “NNEC has brought another set of key issues and strong recommendations to the forefront,” said Jane Weissman, executive director of the Interstate Renewable Energy Council, Inc.. “Easy and consistent permitting protocols for renewable energy systems across jurisdictions are as important as easy hook-up to the utility grid. NNEC’s report gives us clear guidance to move forward.” IREC has endorsed the report. I caught up with Kyle Rabin, NNEC’s Director, and Damian Pitt, the report’s principal author to learn more about it. Here’s our conversation.

IREC: Hi Kyle, Damian. Great job on the report. How did this come about?

KR: Thanks. We at NNEC recognized that the barriers for solar and wind technologies share a common theme: there’s a large disparity in permitting requirements across jurisdictions that inhibits the use of these technologies from becoming more widespread. Streamlining the permit process will give predictability to the private sector, and lay clear ground rules for small-scale renewable energy systems. If local governments remain unaware of the obstacles created by their existing requirements, little to no progress will be made and the opportunities to streamline them without compromising the public interest. NNEC also recognized that without streamlining the permit process, cities and towns will have difficulty in meeting their carbon emission reduction goals.

IREC: So who’s the report targeted to? Communities? States?

KR: The report looks at planning and permitting barriers on a national scale for both residential-scale solar systems and small wind systems. It’s targeted towards planners, city and county administrators and elected officials, and compares and contrasts the planning and permitting barriers for solar energy with those facing small wind systems. The report provides more technical details about the planning and permitting processes and regulations, explaining how localities can plan for small wind. Finally, the report provides more information on the role of comprehensive planning in facilitating the use of small wind, such as in identifying areas that are not-suitable, where small-wind should be designated a conditional use, while being an allowed use in all other areas.

IREC: I know that obstacles for distributed energy systems still exist, even though it feels like there’s been progress over the past few years. How far have we come, and how much farther is there to go?

KR: Yes, progress has definitely been made, but there’s always room for improvement. Some municipalities have made great strides, while others have done little to streamline their permitting process. These political issues, along with financial and social hurdles, continue to be the most significant barriers to the expanded use of distributed renewable energy systems in the United States today.

DP: I agree. Many localities have made progress by providing grants, rebates, or low-interest loans to help lower the cost of distributed renewable energy systems. However, it seems that very few localities have taken a hard look at their permitting processes for these systems. Taking the Red Tape Out of Green Power identifies the primary permitting barriers to small-scale PV and wind energy systems – as cited by renewable energy installers, advocates, customers and professionals in the field – and describes how state and local governments can remove these barriers. In some cases, progress has not been made due to a lack of understanding about the renewable technologies and about the obstacles to those technologies.

IREC: So what’s a community to do if its interested in distributed generation technologies? Is there a simple checklist for them to follow, something that won’t intimidate them?

KR: First and foremost, municipalities must familiarize themselves with the common planning and permitting obstacles so they can understand how to overcome them. The report lists seven primary recommendations for overcoming obstacles:

  • Remove barriers to PV systems from building and zoning codes
  • Simplify PV permit application forms and review processes
  • Adopt flat permit fees or fee waivers for PV and small wind systems
  • Incorporate information about wind energy opportunities into municipal comprehensive planning
  • Establish small wind turbines as permitted uses, with appropriate design guidelines, performance standards, and review processes
  • Ease permitting processes by establishing statewide interconnection standards and educating building and electrical inspectors about proper installation procedures for distributed renewable energy systems; and
  • Adopt legislation at the state level mandating consistent and appropriate permitting requirements for distributed renewable energy systems.

IREC: What about the states: what’s their role in helping communities that want these sorts of technologies?

DP: While NNEC’s report primarily focuses on policies that municipalities can adopt to remove planning and permitting barriers to distributed renewable energy systems, there are three ways that state governments can help to remove those barriers. First, they can establish statewide standards for renewable energy equipment and provide statewide training and education to local building and electrical inspectors. This would also help to mitigate the problem of inconsistent permitting requirements across jurisdictions. Second, states can pass laws to preempt home rule and require local governments to develop efficient permitting processes and reasonable review criteria. Third, they can ban private covenant restrictions that prohibit or restrict PV and other distributed renewable energy systems on aesthetic grounds. Several states have passed such laws already, but their effectiveness has been limited. Therefore, it is recommended that in addition to passing laws banning private covenant restrictions, states should actively educate community associations about their obligations under the law, and inform homeowners about their right to install distributed renewable systems with the proper government permits.

IREC: Any community that’s notable for its success with DG? What was it that made them successful?

KR: The city of San Jose, California is often mentioned as one that has taken intelligent steps to streamline its building permit process without compromising safety. San Jose does not require building permits for roof-mounted systems that extend less than 18 inches, weigh less than 5 pounds per square foot, and do not exceed a maximum concentrated load of 40 pounds at any point of support. Most residential PV systems should easily meet San Jose’s criteria. In San Jose, homeowners or solar contractors can apply for PV system electrical permits “over-the-counter,” using a simple checklist. If the above criteria are met, then the system is approved after a brief follow-up inspection.

IREC: Are there other communities that have streamlined their permitting processes? Who would you say are in the top 5?

DP: I don’t believe we can identify a “Top 5,” because the goal of this report was not to comprehensively review the permitting processes in a large number of communities and identify the best examples of streamlined processes. We relied on information given to us by DG contractors, advocates, and other experts in the field, primarily about the planning and permitting barriers that they have encountered.

San Jose certainly stood out as the best example of permitting for solar PV, but other communities that have streamlined their solar PV permitting include Chicago and Marin County (CA). Marin County, for example, has “fast-track” permit processing for new construction that includes an on-site renewable energy system capable supplying at least 75% of the site’s annual energy use. Chicago also provides “fast-track” permitting for construction that includes on-site DG systems and/or other green building features.

For small wind systems there are several counties in North Carolina that have adopted streamlined permitting processes. The best of these is probably Currituck County, on the North Carolina coast, which has identified small wind systems as a permitted use in all zoning districts. This means that the more complicated, time-consuming conditional use permit process is not required for any small wind systems in the County up to 120 ft. tall (at the tip of the rotor blade) or up to 25 kW in rated capacity.

IREC: How is the report being received? Has there been a good response?

KR: The response was great. Prior to its release, we approached national and regional organizations to ask if they would consider endorsing the report. Fifteen organizations endorsed the report including IREC, AIA, SEIA, AWEA, NRDC, and ICLEI-Local Governments for Sustainability USA. These organizations are helping us get the report into the hands of municipal and state officials, as well as the media. We are looking for more help. There has been some press coverage of the report but in order to make people aware of it, we need to continue to pitch the report to the press.

IREC: I’m not surprised about the response. It’s a timely issue and more people are hungry for this sort of knowledge. So what can we expect next from NNEC?

KR: Thanks. This month, October, NNEC will be releasing the 2008 edition of Freeing the Grid, which grades state net metering policies and interconnection standards. The 2008 edition identifies the latest statewide developments as several states have implemented or expanded their programs. This year’s edition also presents the 2007 grade for an easy comparison of each state’s progress. The report is an excellent example of the type of partnerships that NNEC seeks to build. Our partners on this report are IREC, The Vote Solar Initiative, and the Solar Alliance.

In regards to the subject matter addressed in the ‘Red Tape’ report, we are very interested in working on future projects related to the permitting and planning issue.

IREC: The 07 Freeing the Grid Report was a huge success. We’re all looking forward to the sequel. I’m looking forward to hearing about the new report at IREC’s Annual Meeting in San Diego on October 13th. Thanks for the great work, you two. See you in San Diego.

KR, DP: Sure thing.

 

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