Battle Over Solar Permit Costs in Colorado

Solar equipment installers and manufacturers have pointed out for some time now the hassles of dealing with disparate permitting rules and costs from one city or county to the next. One of the latest efforts to simplify the process and lower fees is taking place right now in Colorado, where lawmakers are considering a bill to cap how much local governments charge for permits.

The bill, HB11-1199, aims to extend an existing law that expires this July, and which puts a cap on the cost of a solar permit, said Gwen Rose, deputy director of the Vote Solar Initiative, after the advocacy group issued a report Thursday looking at permitting processes in Colorado.

The report promotes lowering fees and cutting the amount of time it takes the local planning department to issue a permit for residential and commercial solar electric or thermal system installations. It surveyed 34 cities and counties and found the average permit fee is $498, and the time to get a permit is about seven business days.

Vote Solar, along with Colorado’s solar industry trade group, would like to see the fee cut to a maximum of $250 and the wait time to a day (inspectors will still have more time to check on the installation work before finalizing any permit). They recommend setting flat fees rather than charges based on factors such as equipment or labor costs, Rose said.

As anyone who has applied for any local permit knows, local governments impose charges not just to cover their administrative costs but also to boost their sources of revenues. So permit fees will be different from one to the next, and it’s virtually impossible to standardize the charges statewide. And, as many state and federal governments look for ways to cut spending, cities and counties are particularly worried about losing a big share of tax revenues.

In fact, solar companies in Colorado have seen how local governments have managed to get more money out of installers and home and business owners who want to go solar even though the current law does place a $500 cap for residential projects and $1,000 for all other types. Some cities and counties see the cap as applying only to what they consider the baseline review process for the permits, and they add extra zoning and review fees. The new bill on solar permits includes language to make it harder for local governments to exceed the caps, Rose said.

“Every city can do it differently, and we want to provide objectives for them to look at different and innovative ways to do it,” Rose said. “When you hear installers talking about uniform permitting, I usually caution against hoping for that.”

Vote Solar’s report is advocating an even lower permitting fee than $500 for residential systems. Rose, who is the report’s lead author, said Vote Solar and Colorado’s solar trade group came up with the $250 figure based on previous research on the same issue by advocacy groups and solar companies such as the Solar America Board for Codes and Standards and SunRun which came out with its own report recently to lobby for simpler and cheaper permitting processes and costs.

Colorado is one of the bigger solar markets in the country, ranking fifth behind California, New Jersey, Nevada and Arizona, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association. Colorado solar installers recently fought with the state’s largest utility, Xcel Energy, over Xcel’s plan to suspend its solar incentive program. The two sides came up with a compromise plan that includes lower incentives, and the Colorado Public Utilities Commission approved that plan last Friday.

Photo courtesy of Mike Hammerton via Flickr.