Setting A Unified Course For Solar Energy In California

The cost of solar energy is falling rapidly as researchers such as this former UC Santa Cruz student discover more efficient technology, and as its use becomes more widespread. But there is another way to help cut costs, and the federal government is spending money to help it along.

Estimates vary, but studies show that planning, siting and the permit process at the local levels could add significantly - as much as 50 percent - to the cost of installing solar. Reducing those expenses would decrease the price of solar even more, and possibly spur its use. Read more here in Environmental Leader.

The government's Rooftop Solar Challenge is looking into ways to do that, and a team led by Washington State Department of Commerce received a grant to find ways to streamline and cut red tape in its region. Read more in this Seattle Post-Intelligencer story.

Varying regulations and cost structures are having an effect on companies eager to cash in on California's ambitious 33 percent renewables standard, which, according to this story by AP reporter Tracie Cone, would require about 100,000 acres of solar arrays. That is why the California County Planning Directors' Association (CCPDA) has a task force of various stakeholders attempting to develop a model "streamline" ordinance that all counties could use. Here's more on those efforts.

A guidance document that is a companion to a draft of the model ordinance notes that, on average, 1 megawatt of solar energy requires approximately six acres of land. (1 MW provides electricity for around 750 homes.) In California, many of the permit applications for development of solar energy facilities are in rural areas and potentially involve agricultural lands and wildlife habitat.

"It was clear that there were a variety of strategies being used by counties that were creating confusion across county lines for the solar industry about the process, Agricultural land conversion/Williamson Act compatibility issues, general requirements and fees involved when applying for permits for the installation of Solar Energy Facilities," the CCPDA says on its web site.

Here's an example: This story notes that the impact fee in Kern County, where solar panel sizes determine the fee, is less than a $640 per acre fee proposed for large-scale projects in Riverside County.

Counties are treading carefully as they prepare individual planning ordinances for solar energy because of the potential conflict with farmers. Maybe a unified planning document would help resolve some of those issues.

Photo by Johan Bolhuis