Less Than Light Speed 

Slow to join the solar power craze, Alameda's solar program has been plagued with delays in its first year.

Kevin Good became an electrician during the dot-com boom, when contractors were in short supply. "If you had a heartbeat, you could become an electrician," he quipped during a recent interview. But demand cooled over the next decade, and Good was forced to think up a different business strategy to stay afloat. He thought he found an alternative by looking skyward — solar power. Little did he know that he would encounter a series of dark clouds.

When Good launched his Alameda-based solar-power installation company early this year, it seemed as if he had made a smart move. Sun's Free Solar applied for its first permit to install solar panels at a home in February and received it back from the City of Alameda in less than a day. But when he came back for another permit in mid-March, it took the city two weeks to approve it. His third permit application, filed in April, took eight weeks to process. By the time he filed his fourth, the turnaround time had ballooned to fourteen weeks.

Extensive time delays such as these can be devastating to small businesses who can ill afford to pay employees to sit around, waiting for a city permit to go to work. Bob Winn, owner of Sky Power Systems, which installs solar power systems around the Bay Area, complains that permits in Berkeley or Palo Alto take one week to be approved. Delays in the permit process are time-consuming and expensive, Winn said, adding that in much of Contra Costa and Alameda County, the solar permit process is greatly simplified and takes a day or less.

Last month, Good decided to go public with his complaints. On July 21, at a meeting of the board of directors of Alameda's public utility, Alameda Power & Telecom, Good recounted the time he spent waiting and how he resorted to playing courier as he shuttled an application from one department to another, because the Building and Planning Department was taking so long. "Amongst all the other solar companies, Alameda is strictly taboo," Good told the board, referring to how long it takes to do business in the city.

But Supervising Building Inspection Officer George Carter said in an interview that the slow speed of Alameda's permitting process is not entirely the city's fault. "It's a two-way street," he said. "The first part of the process was the contractors coming in, quite frankly, unprepared. They didn't have the right drawings, the right load calculations." City building official Greg McFann said that the delayed solar panel permits also were the result of the solar program's relatively recent birth. "It's just something new, so anything new takes time to look at so we make sure we get it right."

Alameda is a latecomer to the recent solar power craze. The city didn't even have a formal program until January 1 of this year. The reason was that as a municipal utility, Alameda Power & Telecom didn't have access to state-funded rebate programs for consumers until Governor Schwarzenegger's Million Solar Roofs initiative became law at the beginning of this year. The legislation requires cities with municipal power companies, such as Alameda, to offer solar power programs to consumers financed by billions of dollars in state rebate funds. The new rebates can cut the price of a solar system by 25 percent, which is substantial, considering that a typical home installation runs between $13,000 and $40,000.

By contrast, cities served by investor-owned utility Pacific Gas & Electric Company, such as Oakland and Berkeley, have had access to state-funded consumer rebates since 2001. Today, Oakland features the most installed watts of solar power capacity of any city in the Bay Area, and Northern California's PG&E boasts the second most installed megawatts of solar power capacity of any private utility in the nation. And Berkeley, with 531 total solar power installations, has even more solar-powered homes and businesses per capita rate than does Oakland, with 580 total installations. By comparison, Alameda has had just eight total installations, though it has received an additional 23 permit applications as of August 20.

Yet the absence of a state-funded rebate program doesn't tell the whole story. Palo Alto, for example, has had three hundred total solar installations even though it runs its own municipal utility just like Alameda. So why is Alameda so far behind? One of the reasons may be that solar power doesn't necessarily make as much economic sense for Alameda Power & Telecom and its customers as it does in other communities. Solar power generates the most electricity during sunny summer days, when Bay Area residents are using the most energy to air-condition their homes and offices. Utilities in these areas therefore have an economic incentive to encourage users to generate electricity, so that the utility doesn't have to procure as much power from other, pricier sources. But as a mostly bedroom community, Alameda uses most energy during winter evenings, giving Alameda P&T less of an economic incentive to push solar power.

And even with the new rebate program, Alamedans may be slow to switch to solar. Not only are the systems still pricey, but Alamedans may not see as much of a payback from the electricity generated by solar panels because their rates are already about 13 percent cheaper than customers serviced by PG&E. "I think in general a lot of people in the industry would agree that it's a very expensive option," said Alameda Power & Telecom Board President Ann McCormick, who installed a solar system in hopes that being one of the first would help propel Alameda's solar program in its inaugural year. "Right now, it is still sort of a green luxury item."

After Good voiced his concerns at the July utility board meeting, Alameda Power & Telecom General Manager Girish Balachandran told the Express that the city's solar program is a long-term plan that will happen over the course of ten years, and that Good's complaint was a "snapshot of the process." But then he vowed to streamline it. "What I'm going to do starting tomorrow is get together with the planning department, get together with my staff, the fire department .... We need to be working together to figure these problems out," he said.

Sure enough, in the two weeks following Good's address to the utility's board, a series of meetings were held between members from the three agencies involved in the permitting process. They devised a plan to turn around applications within five days. Good said a permit application he submitted a few weeks ago was returned in that time frame.

Yet even with the new policy, some solar contractors might encounter problems in Alameda that are not typical in other cities. Tim Sears is the program manager for Grid Alternatives, a nonprofit that coordinated the installation of solar panels on a Habitat for Humanity project in Alameda in early July. He said that the Building and Planning Department requested that a second power switch be installed on the roof, so that firefighters can turn off power if they have to get on top of a building. Sears has directed the installation of solar power systems in several other cities in the Bay Area, including San Francisco, Oakland, Richmond, East Palo Alto, and Livermore, but Alameda was the only one that required a second power switch. "The whole thing was a little more complicated than it was in other areas," he said.


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