The energy crunch (on permits for solar installations)

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THE ENERGY CRUNCH

Oakland council to vote on waiving energy permits: Residents' solar, wind power plans for their homes now face high costs, long delays

Janine DeFao, Chronicle Staff Writer

Monday, May 21, 2001, 2001 San Francisco Chronicle

URL: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/chronicle/archive/2001/05/21/MN112477.DTL&type=news

Oakland -- Already seeing red over rising utility bills, Oakland residents have found themselves mired in red tape when they have sought energy alternatives such as solar power.

It can take up to eight weeks and cost more than $1,000 to get the required city permits to install solar panels.

But the City Council is expected to change that tomorrow when it considers an emergency ordinance, proposed by Mayor Jerry Brown, to eliminate design review requirements for renewable energy installations including solar panels and wind devices.

"Energy is an issue on everybody's plate these days. . . . We want to make it easy for people to get their permits and get their panels," said Gary Patton, the city's deputy planning director.

Oakland officials said they know of no other city taking similar steps to promote alternative energy generation, although cities throughout the Bay Area and the state are increasingly looking to renewable energy sources.

San Francisco, for instance, is considering placing solar energy bonds on the November ballot that would fund installation of solar panels on municipal property and could provide low-cost loans for homeowners and businesses to do the same. Berkeley also is working on a loan program for renewable energy sources for residences.

The Oakland measure, which would remain in effect for two years, also would apply to businesses interested in pursuing alternative energy generation.

As Californians already hit by the state's energy crunch face the prospect of more rolling blackouts this summer, Oakland city officials are receiving a growing number of inquiries from residents interested in installing solar panels, Patton said.

The city also has heard complaints about the cost and time it now takes to get systems approved. Gary Gerber, president of Sun Light & Power in Berkeley, said he complained when he learned that it would cost more than $1,200 to install a solar system on a home in the Montclair area. The project is on hold, awaiting the new ordinance.

"The process didn't really fit our situation. . . . It's pretty cumbersome and is the same type of process you might go through for a major remodel," Gerber said. City officials "responded beautifully" in drafting a "solar-friendly" policy, he added.

Calvin Wong, director of building services, said the city has received a dozen applications for solar panel installations in the last month -- up from only a few applications before the energy crisis hit. "We anticipate a lot more," he said.

Gerber said he gets five to 10 calls a day from interested customers. He has done as much business in the first three months of this year as he did all of last year, he said.

"I don't think solar panels have been a significant issue for (Oakland) up to now," said Councilman Dick Spees, who backs the proposed change. "We want to encourage it by making it simple, direct and less costly."

Oakland also is exploring installing solar panels on city buildings. A household solar unit -- which can heat water or produce electricity directly -- can cost $10,000 to $30,000, although state rebates can reduce the price by half. President Bush's energy plan, released last week, proposes a 15 percent tax credit for residents who install solar panels.

Patton said the "main target" of Oakland's emergency ordinance was solar panels, but it would apply to other "renewable energy production facilities," including those using wind and water. Currently, design review for such installations can cost between $397 and $1,088 and take between three and eight weeks, depending on a property's location.

Under the proposal, design review would be waived once an owner submits drawings to the city showing that the equipment installation meets certain requirements, such as matching the pitch of a sloped roof or, if freestanding, being no taller than 6 feet. For certain structures, such as designated landmark sites, design review still would be required, but at no cost and lasting no more than five days.

Building permits and inspections, costing between $85 and $170, still would be required to make sure the additions are safe, Patton said. Brown has long been considered an alternative energy advocate, pioneering state solar and wind tax credits when he was governor.

E-mail Janine DeFao at jdefao@sfchronicle.com. 2001 San Francisco Chronicle Page A - 13

-- Swssrose (cellier#@mindspring.com), May 21, 2001


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