North Texas regional permitting efforts underway

An effort is underway to encourage local cities to craft more solar-friendly regulations and make it easier for homeowners to go green.

The push is being spearheaded by the North Central Texas Council of Governments, which has been awarded a $90,000 grant by the U.S. Department of Energy to help spur the growth of solar energy in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

Over the next 18 months, the agency plans to work with up to 30 area governments to determine how they’re handling requests to install solar panels and identify the obstacles facing consumers.

The goal is to simplify the inspection and permitting processes.

“We want to look at some best-management practices to streamline solar implementation,” said Lori Clark, principal air quality planner for the regional council who is coordinating the “Solar Ready II” project.

The initiative is welcomed by green energy enthusiasts who want to “solarize” neighborhoods throughout Plano.

“It would be great if all cities could get engaged in the process,” said Larry Howe, co-founder of Plano Solar Advocates, a volunteer group that provides education and support for homeowners who want to go green.

Clark said some cities, such as Dallas and Benbrook, have rewritten their codes to address solar. “It runs the spectrum,” she said of municipal regulations. “Some haven’t caught up and some are on the cutting edge.”

An initial meeting with industry representatives and local government officials identified the need to train city inspectors and installers and to educate consumers about the benefits of solar systems.

“There’s a lot of information about solar power in California and the northeast,” Clark said. “We want to fill in the gaps for the D-FW area.”

As municipalities become more familiar with solar systems, Clark hopes to see a reduction in soft costs, such as permitting, inspections and installation.

While the cost of solar hardware has declined from $3.28 to $1.90 per watt from 2010 to 2012, the soft costs have remained the same, at $3.32 per watt.

“The cost to the ultimate user hasn’t changed as much as the equipment,” she said.

Even though North Texas is sun-drenched most of the year, environmentalists say it has lagged behind other areas — like New Jersey and Colorado — in harvesting Old Sol’s free energy.

“It’s a great area for solar,” said Rosa Orenstein, treasurer of the North Texas Renewable Energy Group, a nonprofit that promotes solar and other forms of green energy.

She said the low cost of natural gas in recent years has made it difficult for many people to justify the upfront costs of installing solar panels.

However, she said, some people are finding ways around that by leasing solar panels or banding together to reduce costs of equipment and installation by leveraging the power of bulk purchasing.

That’s how 24 Plano property owners shaved about 20 percent off normal retail costs for their solar systems, said Howe, who helped launch the “Solarize Plano Project” in June.

The initiative connected homeowners with qualified installers and provided educational and technical support throughout the process. Installation of the 24 solar systems begins this month, Howe said.

Plano Solar Advocates, one of the recipients of Plano’s 2013 Environmental Community Award, now wants to take the clean energy project to other area communities.

When it comes to municipal regulations, Howe suggested having an online checklist for installers “so they know upfront what’s going to be required.” And some uniformity in standards would be a plus, he said.

Howe hopes to see cities working together to learn from one another about solar equipment. He envisions a time when inspectors are as familiar with rooftop solar as they are with heating and air conditioning systems.

“If you can team with another jurisdiction, you can learn,” he said.

Source: Dallas News


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