Public Comment

New: Sierra Club Unfairly Bashes Richmond for Alleged High Solar Permit Fees

By Tom Butt, Richmond City Councilmember
Wednesday March 02, 2011 - 08:16:00 PM

The Sierra Club study of commercial solar PV system permit fees by Kurt Newick cited in “Fees for business solar power units vary widely” (Mike Taugher, Contra Costa Times 2/27/2011) is both misleading and misplaced, and it unfairly and inappropriately targets Richmond as having the highest permit fee in Contra Costa County. 

If the Sierra Club’s objective is to promote solar by trying to beat down solar permit fees, they have picked the wrong target. For small residential systems, permit fees are important, and Richmond leads the County by offering free permits for residential solar. Richmond also leads the County and the State of California in solar watts installed per capita, including both residential and commercial, so we must be doing something right. 

Reducing fees for large commercial users that might include corporations like Chevron, Target or Walmart, simply means that the money to pay City staff for processing permits would have to be made up by robbing some other program. Would Newick have us close a branch library or take a cop off the street to subsidize commercial energy users? 

Newick’s flawed approach starts by significantly overestimating the cost of a 131 kW system, which also has the effect of inflating the permit fee, a function of cost. Even at the inflated $1.2 million cost, through a combination of federal tax credits and California Solar Incentive rebates, Newick’s hypothetical installation would be reduced in cost by about $370,000, courtesy of taxpayers and PG&E ratepayers. 

In any event, Richmond’s permit fee is only about 1.6% of the total cost, and the permit fee would be reduced proportionately by incentives to about $14,000. There is no evidence cited by Newick that the range of solar permit fees represented in Contra Costa County has any effect on the decision of a business owner to go solar. Yet he is obsessed with this one particular metric to the exclusion of all others. 

Richmond Planning Director Richard Mitchell commented: “During my past discussions with commercial and industrial developers, none of them expressed concerns about solar permit fees because their tenants are usually responsible for paying their own energy costs. Specialty tenants such as Bay Area Beverage, Sun Power or El Cerrito Natural Grocery have installed systems because they are energy intensive businesses that are looking for ways to cut their on-going energy costs. Permit fees are not a significant part of that analysis because they are negligible related to other costs associated with installing alternative energy systems.” 

The Sierra Club’s campaign to expose what they apparently believe are excessive permit fees for commercial solar is a gigantic waste of time with no proven basis. There are probably a lot more important things they could be doing instead of trying to further bleed city planning and building departments, which are already severely decimated and in some cases, extinct. 

The once squeaky clean Sierra Club has been acting strangely lately, most recently selling their soul to endorse the Point Molate casino project in exchange for promises of future money in a secret deal that has never seen the light of day.