How Local Governments Are Standing in the Way of Clean Energy


With the federal government's failure to address climate change, close to 900 U.S. cities and towns have agreed to reduce greenhouse gases in their communities by at least 7 percent by 2012. Support for small-scale solar and wind electricity generators would go a long way toward meeting those goals, especially as large-scale systems continue to get bogged down by opposition in many communities.

States nationwide are implementing or expanding programs that serve as an important economic incentive; people who generate their own clean energy can send the excess to the grid, dramatically lowering their electric bills, while also reducing demand on non-renewable, over-stressed electric systems. However, many towns, counties and cities are still making it difficult and expensive for people who want to generate their own renewable energy.

Small-scale solar and wind generation systems can promote green jobs at this time of economic turmoil, skyrocketing energy costs, widespread desire for energy independence, and increasing public concern about air quality and climate change. Local officials must do their part by removing unnecessary barriers to installation of these systems that exist in local building codes and permit and inspection requirements.

In Virginia, renewable energy contractor Jim Madden calls local permit and planning processes a major obstacle. "The biggest problems," he said, "are the length of time required and lack of knowledge about renewable energy systems at the county government level." In New York, solar contractor Steve Englemann says that local permit requirements cause "by far the greatest delay in the industry, requiring so much time and energy, and delaying jobs to the extent that we have a hard time financially with our business because of it. Every town and village has very different requirements from one another, which is a huge burden on our business."

According to Curt Bradley in California, "Contra Costa County will issue a permit for a small wind generator if the site is zoned for agricultural use, but not if it is zoned commercial or industrial." Recently, a church that is ideally located in the San Francisco Bay wind corridor asked Bradley to install two small wind turbines, 10 kilowatts or less, to provide energy for their sanctuary, school and offices. Because the church is located on property that is zoned commercial, the county planning department would not entertain their proposal.

It is particularly striking that this is happening in California, which has some of the nation's strongest laws and policies to encourage the adoption of small-scale solar and wind, but stories like these are repeated from state to state. In Arizona, where the state is upgrading its net metering program, solar and wind contractors cite barriers that include local government disorganization, inconsistent permit requirements and wide variations in fees.

The more than 40 states that have adopted net metering should take the next step by mandating that towns adopt consistent and appropriate permit requirements and uniform standards. For example, New Hampshire's legislature recently passed a law that prevents local governments in the state from applying building height limits to wind turbines and sets a statewide standard for how much sound they can emit. The states could also smooth the process by educating building and electrical inspectors about the proper installation of common renewable systems.

Solar Sonoma County (SSC), in California, is one group working to address local permitting concerns. SSC arose from residents' desire to increase the installation of solar systems in their community and has set an ambitious goal of facilitating the installation of 25 megawatts of solar generating capacity in Sonoma County within three years -- the equivalent of at least 3,500 home systems and 50 larger-scale commercial installations. To do that, city managers from Sonoma's nine cities and the county realize they will have to do things differently, so they are meeting to devise a standard, county-wide permitting process.

People who want to install these clean, efficient solar and wind systems can find themselves drowning in a sea of red tape. And this goes way beyond a few frustrated individuals -- it affects the whole community.

While the electricity generated may be used primarily by a single home or business, the benefits of these small-scale renewable systems extend to everyone, including economic growth, reduced pollution, increased local energy independence, and reduced pressure on the local electricity grid.

Streamlining the permit process will also give predictability to the private sector, and lay clear ground rules for small-scale renewable energy systems. But failure to streamline the process takes the wind out of towns' efforts to create a green economy and prevents those who want these systems from saving energy and money.

Photovoltaic solar and small wind turbine generators are well established technologies, with proven, off-the-shelf systems that come ready to install. While the upfront costs of these systems are high, in today's energy marketplace they also pay for themselves more rapidly than ever before, making them an increasingly attractive way to confront rising energy costs. Rebates and tax incentives are also increasing the systems' affordability for many customers.

Specific steps local governments should take include removing barriers to photovoltaic solar systems from building codes and simplifying the permit application process. For example, they can exempt solar and wind energy devices from building codes' standard height limits. Further, there's no reason to require a building permit for the installation of small-scale rooftop solar systems. If a town does require a permit however, it should be a simple matter where a contractor or homeowner fills out a brief form and gets a permit on the spot. Additional details and recommendations are available in Taking the Red Tape Out of Green Power, which provides a roadmap for local officials nationwide who want to streamline their towns' regulations.


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