Solar group at odds with The City

The head of the California Solar Energy Industries Association has complained that San Francisco is out of step with state law because some permits to install solar panels in The City are held up for aesthetic or height reasons, costing installing companies too much time and money.

CalSEIA’s President, Barry Cinnamon, launched his complaint after his company, Akeena Solar Inc. (AKNS) of Los Gatos, was told that a homeowner client could only install a solar system on 20 percent of his roof’s surface because the house doesn’t meet height setback restrictions set out in The City’s planning code.

Cinnamon maintains that 2004 amendments to the 1978 California Solar Rights Act prohibit cities from using height and aesthetic considerations in granting permits to install a solar energy system on a home or business.

The only proper considerations, Cinnamon said, are if “it’s a pre-existing health and safety issue, not one that they come up with later. It has been continually and successfully applied in municipalities throughout the state after we pointed it out to them.”

If he prevails, permitting requirements will change for the more than 18 solar energy system installation firms working in The City.

“This last batch of permits that we’ve been trying to do is extraordinarily difficult,” Cinnamon said. “What I think would be the best thing is if the city attorney could make a fairly quick interpretation of the Solar Rights Act.”

Staff members from the Planning Department and the City Attorney’s Office are examining the complaint, Department of the Environment spokeswoman Johanna Partin said. Mayor Gavin Newsom’s office referred calls back to the Department of the Environment.

The complaint is ironic, given that San Francisco’s government publicly and systemically supports solar power. Newsom named green technology as one of his top economic priorities this year.

The City in fact created a process in 2004 for streamlining solar energy system permits, in which companies file a fairly complicated plan of a typical solar installation to keep on file with The City’s Department of Building Inspection. After that, those companies can come in and get a same-day permit for a job — unless the home is historic, above its height limit or any other exception that throws the installer back to the Planning Department.

Several firms said that they have found that streamlined process easy and pleasant. “Once you know the process, it is very, very easy,” said Randy Kauffman, president and CEO of Concord’s

NextEnergy Corp.

Other executives praised the expedited process, but had concerns about consistent application, especially when the expedited procedure isn’t available. “Eight times out of 10, there’s no issue at all [with the panels being visible],” said Bradley Hibberd, director of engineering at Berkeley’s Borrego Solar. “It very much comes down to the individual planner.”

For example, he said, he had an application that took six weeks to meet with and receive a certificate of appropriateness from the Landmarks Preservation Advisory Board.

Executives also expressed concerns that less-scrupulous companies could get around the exacting city standards by filing one set of generic drawings and then doing something else, or by applying for a regular building permit instead.

Prior to the streamlined process, getting the permits for a solar system could take more than a year and cost $1,500, Partin said. Now, the expedited permits cost less than $150.

Partin and DBI Chief Building Inspector Laurence Kornfield said some companies newer to the burgeoning solar field may be unaware of The City’s expedited process. A training workshop for these firms will be conducted from 8:30 a.m. to 10 a.m. Jan. 12 in Room 2001, 1660 Mission St.

kwilliamson@examiner.com

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