Changing the Rules

Toward a streamlined solar permitting process

Urbanist Article January 1, 2004

Solar power is part of the solution to our society's devastating reliance on fossil fuels for generating electricity. While solar power alone can't provide for all of our electricity needs yet, it's an increasingly important power source because it provides pollution-free electricity generation close to the point of use, and in amounts that can meet the needs of small consumers directly. Other benefits of solar include reliability, freedom from future fuel price increases, and its ability to continue to function during natural disasters that might disable the electrical grid that brings power to San Francisco.

To help advance solar power adoption in the city, as a member of the SPUR Sustainable Development Committee, I spent the last year attempting to smooth what seems like a tiny bureaucratic hurdle: obtaining a permit to add a solar panel to your roof. In the end, this turned out to be a real victory for solar power. But the story of this small battle might also inform how we think about working toward institutional change, and along the way, what it takes to move away from fossil fuels.


The Sustainable Development Committee at SPUR decided a few years ago that in order to promote "green" buildings more broadly we would focus on Building Code reform first (see "Green Buildings: Bringing Environmentally Sensitive Design to San Francisco", SPUR Newsletter, June 2001, p. 1). Why? Because we wanted to work with our existing institutions to use the enforcement powers they already have and the processes people are already familiar with, rather than turningsustainability into another regulatory burden. We decided to focus on removing existing barriers to green building first because proposing new requirements would be harder and creating new incentive programs would be more expensive. And anyway, the existing barriers were frustrating and irritating. San Francisco sees itself as an environmentally progressive city, I thought, so why can't I get a permit to design a water-conserving graywater system? Why can't new office buildings use natural ventilation like our lovely older building stock? and why is it so expensive and time-consuming to get a permit for a solar power system? We decided to start with the solar question?it seemed to involve the smallest amount of resistance and promised to be a quick way to proceed.


The Problem
In other cities around the Bay Area, permits to add a photovoltaic (PV) system to a rooftop are easy to get. An electrical inspector reviews simple plans over the counter, and a fee of $100?$200 is paid. In San Francisco, the City held plans for internal review for weeks, sending it to the structural division of the Department of Building Inspection (DBI) and the Planning Department for review, charged fees into the thousands of dollars, and required the installer to set aside two separate four-hour blocks of time for onsite inspection visits. All these requirements could add 20 percent or more to the installed cost of a PV system. The incongruity of an environmentally conscious city making it difficult to install PV systems was highlighted by new bond measures and city ordinances that made promoting solar power an explicit goal.

Of course, the labyrinthine process was not intended to be a problem originally. PV systems weren't foreseen in the codes that govern building and planning, so they tended to fall into the requirements reserved for unusual situations. And department staff had only considered them on a case-by-case basis, not as a typical new type of application. The Fire Department was concerned about what would happen to firefighters who had to swing an axe through the PV panels while they were generating electricity. (The low-voltage DC current generated by PV systems is not dangerous even if conducted through an axe, given the very modest power output of current technologies.) The Planning Department was concerned that neighbors would be upset about new PV systems going up in their neighborhood without having an opportunity for public review (why it's worse to look at a low-profile PV-clad roof than asphalt shingles I don't understand) and the structural division of DBI was concerned that PV systems could add too much weight to old roofs.

The Code Revision Process

On the flip side of these concerns, the Planning Department and DBI administer code-revision processes as well as the codes themselves. The codes are always being updated, whether to conform to new State requirements or new local concerns. Our request for code revision fell on receptive ears at DBI, where Chief Inspector Laurence Kornfield thought it was a great idea
to look at the permit process for PV systems. He drew us a chart of the code revision process, starting with the State's building code adoption process, proceeding to DBI's Code Advisory Committee, through the Building Inspection Commission, and up to the Board of Supervisors if necessary. He explained that the permit process we wanted could be more readily handled as a code interpretation, published in what is called an Administrative Bulletin, rather than a formal code change. This would allow more flexibility in the application of the process, and save a couple review steps. He didn't tell us then, although we learned quickly enough, that each step is accompanied by public meetings requiring lengthy advance notice, and that coordination with other departments (in this case, Planning and Fire) is done by informal communication between department staff with formal approval by department heads.

To keep everything above-board and by the rules, our work from that point forward consisted of attending regularly calendared and noticed public meetings of DBI's Code Advisory Committee. We served as researchers and advocates for a streamlined process, at one point bringing copies of the City of Oakland's permit forms, which had recently been streamlined. They helped establish a precedent for what we wanted, and also set a standard for San Francisco to meet (or, in the case of Oakland, to exceed). We invited solar installation companies to the meetings to describe an ?ideal? process so the building inspectors could hear first-hand how the systems are installed and what their requirements are. By bringing five solar installers to a Structural Subcommittee meeting of the Code Advisory Committee, we packed what was their best-attended meeting ever.

The biggest issue we encountered was coordination with other City departments. Essentially, we were asking the Planning and Fire departments to give up their right to review projects they feared might cause problems for them (life safety for firefighters, disgruntled neighbors for planners). Kornfield took the lead in negotiating with the departments, drawing up guidelines for an expedited permit that would protect their interests. The result is a checklist of requirements that a PV system must meet to get streamlined review?unusual projects that might cause planning, fire, or structural problems will have to use the more expensive and time-consuming full-review process. But it was a big step for those departments to agree in advance that some systems would be so simple, safe, and unobtrusive that the departments would accept an electrical inspector and an owner's signed affidavit in place of review by their own staff. Those criteria were enumerated and signed off on by the department heads, making the new streamlined review public.

Lessons Learned

In a recent meeting of the SPUR Sustainable Development committee, Kornfield gave us suggestions on how to begin working to change bureaucratic processes in the City:

  • It is good to choose items to advance that have no real opposition
  • It is important to allow City departments to conduct their public noticing and all procedures they have in place to ensure that public input is requested, considered, and respected, so that their processes stay fully above-board
  • It is important to follow through on the (usually very lengthy) series of public meetings that are part of the policy-revision process. Attendance at many months of (often repetitive) meetings can produce actual policy changes

For those who like to think of our city government as a bureaucracy, this is a story of the b-word in action. Processes are not always clear, and there is a fair amount of internal friction, but there are also lines of authority that, once engaged, can help make lasting changes. The most significant feature that made our effort successful was the support and leadership taken by Kornfield, who knew what the appropriate channels for rule changes were and which people needed to agree to each step along the way.

The benefits of this change will be significant. Solar power is crucial to San Francisco not only because of global environmental issues like climate change and oil wars, but because of local impacts like air pollution in Bayview-Hunter's Point.

By saving time and money on every solar installation, we have smoothed the road to large-scale adoption of solar power in the city. More installations can be done in less time, and less cost, and will be available to more residents and businesses. So if you're not going to join us at the next Code Advisory Committee meeting pushing for approval of graywater systems and other water conservation technologies, or getting the Planning Department to establish a new dispute-resolution process over what happens when your new building shades a solar panel (because the current design review process is not appropriate for this concern), get out there and get yourself a PV system while the getting is good.
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About the Authors: 

Raphael Sperry is a LEED-accredited professional at 450 Architects in San Francisco. He chairs the Green Building Task Force of SPUR's Sustainable Development Committee.

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