At the 2014 Solar Power Generation USA Congress in San Diego, the national Award for Best Collaboration went to the city of Palo Alto, Calif., for streamlining its residential and commercial solar array approval process.
Palo Alto earned the award by bringing together stakeholders from the public, private and government sectors to make it faster and easier to install a photovoltaic (PV) system in the city. The collaborative project reduced the average 122-day wait for a solar permit in Palo Alto to five days, and in most cases the permit can be issued over the counter. The time it takes until final inspection is down to 140 days from the 209 days, with inspection requests being accommodated on the same or next day. As a result of these improvements, the number of solar applications received in city the same three-month period increased by 67 percent.
The best intentions
Standards for solar panel installation vary from state to state, even city to city; and contractor certification requirements are equally inconsistent. A strong approval and inspection process for installations ensures public safety, code compliance and quality work. “There will always be a few bad actors who will take advantage of cities and utilities that are under pressure to meet renewable energy mandates,” observed Peter Pirnejad, Development Services director for the City of Palo Alto. “Ultimately, that hurts consumers, renewable programs and the industry itself.”
But a too-rigorous process can hinder deployment, too, added Pirnejad, making an agency seem excessively bureaucratic and obstructive. In an effort to protect citizens, Palo Alto requirements had mushroomed to include full copies of installation guidelines on all the components of the array. “It is a balancing act, and we had gone too far in the direction of caution,” he acknowledged.
The first step in restoring balance was getting input from the local solar industry. Pirnejad, who joined the city in 2012, brought together a large group of installers to discuss the process. “We received a lot of feedback about our requirements and responsiveness,” he recalled. “It was clear that the problem was systemic.”
Get it done
Overhauling the process was the goal, and the city wasted no time moving forward. “You can’t say you want to streamline a system, and then take a long time to do it,” Pirnejad pointed out.
The Development Services Department assembled a task force of solar contractors, residents, utility representatives and city officials. In three meetings over four months, the group identified ways to create a more transparent and efficient permitting process.
The first round of fixes included setting a flat fee for residential installations, eliminating the requirement to engineer residential PV systems and reducing the number of required inspections. The city standardized a PV permit checklist, modeled on The Solar America Board Codes and Standards (Solar ABCs) Expedited Permit Process and created a website where applicants can find all the requirements and city contacts.
Not there yet
The initial changes made a big difference in the first six months following implementation. The average number of days the city took to issue a permit dropped 37 percent. Streamlining reduced the number of days to finalize a permit by 15 percent, and cut in half the time it took to complete a review.
The city presented those results to the community for a six-month review, and the community’s gentle, but firm response was better, but not good enough. “The issues were more about efficiency than speed,” Pirnejad said.
In trying to turn around permit requests in three days, the city was stretching its system to the breaking point. The time it took the city to return plan check comments was viewed as less of a problem than how long it to issue the permit to build. People were having trouble meeting the requirements for over-the-counter permitting. Design plan checks had become faster but the number of rechecks and plan resubmittals had climbed. Similarly, contractors were less concerned about how long it took the city to respond to the field inspection request and more concerned about how often inspections were being failed.
The task force reached out to PV designers and installers again for help in refining the process. Pirnejad credits that input with helping the city find a balance between speed and thoroughness. “If I had one word of advice for cities trying to simplify and expedite their PV review and inspection experience, it would be ‘collaboration,'” he said. “To get a process that works for both the city and the designers, both parties have to come together.”
Better than awards
Palo Alto seems to have reached the goal of a process that works for the most people. In last quarter of 2013, the city received more solar permit applications than during the entire year of 2012. In December of 2013 alone, 38 applications moved through the process, compared to 40 in all of 2011.
Streamlining the permitting process will help the already carbon-neutral city increase the amount of clean electricity generated locally. The process for permitting electric vehicle charging stations was also covered in the overhaul, so it is likely to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions from transportation, too.
Shortly after the improved process went into effect, the Vote Solar Initiative contacted Palo Alto. The nonprofit renewable energy advocate had heard about the collaborative project and wanted to feature it in a webinar about how cities should work. Project Permit, a Vote Solar program that scores municipal solar permitting practices nationwide, has given the Palo Alto permitting process a gold star.
The PV industry has shown its appreciation too, with SolarCity and Cobalt Power Systems, two of the city’s largest PV installers, publicly praising the dramatic changes. “The City of Palo Alto deserves a tremendous amount of credit for listening to the needs of solar customers and making direct changes based on those needs,” said Jefferson Silver, senior commercial project manager for SolarCity.
“This type of collaboration between city staff and developers facilitates a deeper level of interaction within our community,” said Palo Alto City Manager James Keene in an interview.
Keep on keeping on
Pirnejad and the Development Services team have not allowed success to go to their heads. “Municipalities need to continuously monitor their requirements to make sure they remain efficient and reflect current best practices,” he explained.
The ties the city built with the community during the streamlining project will help to keep the process from backsliding, Pirnejad believes. “Getting all the stakeholders involved and really listening to them is what gets results,” he declared. “The human touch makes all the difference.”