02/09/2011 06:24 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Red Tape: A Solar Play in One Long, Expensive Act

There's a lot of talk about getting those darn EPA regulators off of the power industry's back, but what about the tangled mess of red tape facing the renewable energy industry? Customers who want to install small-scale, distributed generation like solar panels and wind turbines are confronted with a maze of complex, expensive and lengthy local permitting requirements. For installers, the headaches are compounded because these requirements and fees often vary wildly from town to town.

Nationwide, this adds up to a big problem for the solar industry. President Obama has talked about the need for the United States to lead the green energy movement, but solar installers are finding that the country is currently leading the way in red tape.

These concerns were outlined in detail in a 2008 report, Taking the Red Tape Out of Green Power. Now residential solar financing company SunRun has released another report that estimates the average cost of local permitting requirements, and the final tally isn't pretty.

But instead of just outlining the report's findings in a table or chart, why not work them into a compelling narrative?!

So please enjoy a one-scene play based on the findings of the SunRun's research. Remember, all of the inartfully-incorporated cost figures and delay times below are averages and don't necessarily reflect the reality of any particular city or town. (In fact, some places really have their permitting acts together, like Philadelphia and San Jose.)

Spoiler alert! The final message from both of these reports? Simplify and standardize the permits and fees and help educate often understaffed building departments on the latest technology.

And now....


A long line of shuffling contractors, impulsively checking their phones and watches, in front of the building department clerk's window. The mood in line is...testy. An exasperated solar installer is called to the window.

SOLAR INSTALLER Man, I've been in line for 30 minutes.

BUILDING DEPARTMENT CLERK (a little too cheery) Lucky you! Sometimes it takes up to half a day here.

INSTALLER Right, but it's costing my company $149* just for me to drive out here and wait in line. Anyway, I've got some materials here for you... INSTALLER lifts up a sack and places it on the counter. It is overflowing with paper.

INSTALLER (cont'd) Okay, so seven copies of the permit packet, a few hundred pages of equipment manuals, a few know this packet cost $505 to put together?

CLERK Great, you're so organized! Don't forget the check for the $431 permit fee and we'll get back to you in up to six weeks and -- ooh, darn! Looks like you might have missed a few details.

INSTALLER (confused) But this is all in line with state and national code.

CLERK I know, crazy, huh?! I guess we like to go well beyond established federal and state code, so we have a few extra requirements for solar installations. Let's see, yep, you'll have to make the system a little smaller because of our extra large fire setback...


CLERK Oh and an extra disconnect because you can never have too many of those...

INSTALLER But there's one already -

CLERK Aaand a whole bunch of electrical labels...


CLERK Don't forget double flashing...


CLERK ...and extra attachments. There, now everything will be super-duper safe. Just go ahead and ask your customer for another $581. I'm sure they won't mind!

INSTALLER Actually that could be a problem because -

CLERK Oh drat! Did you schedule the field inspection?

INSTALLER I...wait, what?

CLERK Whoops! Just make sure you have an employee hanging around the construction site between 8 in the morning and 4 in the afternoon next Friday and an inspector will show up for a 15 minute visit. Maybe budget in $329 just to be safe.

INSTALLER (losing patience) That's an eight hour window of time! Listen, these extra costs and delays are really hurting my business so -

CLERK should probably factor in about a $520 loss for lost business! You, know, on average.

INSTALLER All of this permitting is going to cost me $2,515! For one installation?

CLERK You bet! But... CLERK's demeanor turns deadly serious, scans the room with a sense of paranoia, leans forward and speaks in a strained, hushed voice. INSTALLER leans in to hear.

CLERK (cont'd) Listen, if you go to Othertown -- you know, the town next door -- they let you submit your permit online, they review it within a few days and the fee is half of what we charge. They don't go beyond state and federal code requirements, either. This place is ridiculous but man, Othertown is a sweet, sweet solar town. CLERK pauses - wistfully - leans back, then returns to formerly cheery self.

CLERK (cont'd) Have a great day! And, oh, you should probably hoof it up to the zoning department to fill out a zoning application. That process should only set you back three weeks. And FYI, they love poster board presentations!


*Average cost listed in the SunRun report. Follow along and add them all up!

Originally published at Ecocentric.