California Solar Permitting Guidebook Explained [2020 Update]

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    The California Solar Permitting Guidebook was created by the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research and is designed to streamline the permitting process for small-scale solar energy systems. In this article, we’ll dive into the guidebook and help simplify the contents.

    At Avila Solar, we are here to help and we want you to feel confident in the permitting process and understand how everything works before you commit to a solar energy installation project.

    What is the California Solar Permitting Guidebook?

    The guidebook was developed with input from all the relevant stakeholders, such as local governments, solar contractors, and city planners. The goal of the guidebook is to assemble all the pertinent information in one place, so those who are interested in solar energy do not have to go chasing down information from different (often conflicting or confusing) resources.

    The California Solar Permitting Guidebook clearly lays out the current state requirements for solar installations, the steps involved in the process, and guidelines for local governments that include ways to improve existing permit processes and toolkits of template documents.

    Who Is It For?

    The guidebook is designed to be a helpful resource for anyone who is interested in the solar permitting process in California, as well as local permitting agencies and solar installation contractors. The overarching goal of the guidebook is to minimize uncertainty and different interpretations of the state code requirements as they apply to photovoltaic installations.

    For Government

    The California Building Code and the California Residential Code both require significant interpretation by local governments as to how they apply, and the California Solar Permitting Guidebook aims to provide some clarity which in turn results in continuity of the permitting process throughout the state.

    Local governments can take advantage of the included toolkit of template documents to make the process as clear and easy as possible. These templates include a local information bulletin, standard plans, an example MOU, a technical information bulletin for single-family residence owners who are considering solar energy, and a technical information bulletin of the current state code requirements as they apply to residential and commercial solar systems. The toolkit also includes examples of stellar solar permitting processes that are currently used in jurisdictions around the state.

    Solar Installers (Solar Thermal & PV)

    The guidebook is also helpful for solar installation contractors, as they are often the ones who handle the permitting process on behalf of clients. The guidebook provides a concrete set of guidelines that contractors can follow without worrying about the local variations to the process.

    2020 California Solar Laws, Regulations, and Code Highlights

    Next, let’s take a look at some of the most important laws, regulations, and codes that are explained in the guidebook.

    Solar Installations

    Title 24 of the California Code of Regulations (CCR) contains the state’s rules that govern the design and construction of buildings, and is otherwise known as the building code. Title 24 contains requirements surrounding solar installations, like the California Electrical Code, California Building Code, California Mechanical Code, and California Residential Code.

    The guidebook provides a basis for the consistent interpretation of these codes, so that solar installer whose service areas span multiple jurisdictions are not bogged down by different variations of the process for each region.

    2020 California Solar Permit Fees

    According to California state law, fees for permit processing and inspection cannot exceed what is deemed to be a reasonable cost of providing the service. Additionally, Government Code Section 66015 sets even more specific limits on the fees that local enforcement agencies can collect for solar permitting. These limits apply to the sum of all the fees charged by the city, the county, the city and county (if both apply fees), or by the charter city in which the solar energy system is to be installed.

    The fee limits vary by the type of solar system (photovoltaic versus solar thermal) as well as the type of property where it’s being installed (residential versus commercial). Here are the specific limits:

    Permit Fee Limits for Photovoltaic Systems

    • Residential systems that are 15 kW or less: $450
    • Residential systems that are more than 15 kW: $500 + $15 per kW over 15 kW
    • Commercial systems that are 50 kW or less: $1,000
    • Commercial systems that are between 50 – 150 kW: $1,000 + $7 per kW over 50 kW
    • Commercial systems that are more than 250 kW: $2,400 + $5 per kW over 250 kW

    Permit Fee Limits for Solar Thermal Systems

    • Residential systems that are 10 kWth or less: $450
    • Residential systems that are more than 10 kWth: $450 + $15 per kWth over 10 kWth
    • Commercial systems that are 30 kWth or less: $1,000
    • Commercial systems that are between 30 – 260 kWth: $1,000 + $7 per kWth over 30 kWth
    • Commercial systems that are more than 160 kWth: $2,610 + $5 per kWth over 160 kWth

    These are the upper limits, so some local governments have lower fees or have even waived the fees entirely in an effort to support green energy solutions and incentive residents.

    Expedited Solar Permitting Approved in CA

    As of September 30, 2015, all local agencies within California added new permitting requirements in order to implement an administrative ordinance. This new ordonnance allows for a streamlined or expedited solar permitting for small rooftop systems that meet certain requirements:

    • The system must be no larger than 10 kW for photovoltaic and no larger than 30 kWth for thermal.
    • The system must conform to all applicable fire, structural, electrical, and other building codes of the city and/or county.
    • The system must be installed on a single-family or duplex residence.
    • The system cannot exceed the maximum legal building height determined by the authority having jurisdiction.

    Additionally, this provision sets limits on the input and oversight that homeowners associations can have regarding solar energy installations.

    Creating the Solar PV Standard Plan

    The toolkit included within the California Solar Permitting Guidebook includes sample forms that local governments can customize and distribute to interested parties in their jurisdictions. One of the most helpful documents is the Solar PV Standard Plan, which has two main variations.

    Simplified Central/String Inverters

    This document should be used for planning systems that have a utility central/string inverter and that do not exceed a system AC inverter output rating of 10 kW on a single- or two-family residence. It applies to photovoltaic systems that are interconnected to the load side of a single-phase AC service panel and a bus bar that has a rating of 225 A or less.

    This sample document does not apply to bipolar systems, hybrid systems, or systems that include storage batteries, charge controllers, trackers, three or more inverters, or string combinations.

    Simplified Microinverter and ACM Systems

    This planning document is for the intended use of solar energy systems that use utility-interactive microinverters or AC modules (ACM) and do not exceed a total system output of 10 kW. These systems can have a maximum of three branch circuits, one PV module per inverter, and they must be installed on the roof of a single- or two-family residence.

    The system must be interconnected with a single-phase AC service panel. This plan also applies to supply-side connectors but is not intended for bipolar systems, hybrid systems, or systems that use storage batteries, charge controllers, or trackers.

    Project Approval Process

    There are two phases to the approval process: one that happens before the solar system is installed through the local enforcing agency and one that happens afterward through the local utility company.

    The local enforcing agency process starts when you submit your application paperwork and supporting materials. This permit application is then reviewed and either approved or returned for revisions. The permit application is reviewed to ensure that it meets structural requirements, electrical requirements, plumbing and mechanical requirements, fire safety and access requirements, fire service approval requirements, and planning and zoning requirements.

    After all of the requirements have been met and your permit application has been approved, you can go ahead and have your contractor construct your solar energy system. Once it is in place, the local enforcing agency will perform a site inspection and give its final approval.

    At that point, you just need approval from your local utility company to interconnect to the grid, and they will come out to do their own site inspection before approving the interconnection. They will double-check to make sure that everything is safely connected and will not overwhelm the grid.

    Is Solar Permitting in California Difficult?

    The solar permitting process is becoming simpler, but it can still be quite complex if you don’t understand how it all works. It also can involve a lot of paperwork and assembling documents from many different entities for a variety of authorities having jurisdictions.

    If you don’t feel confident that you fully understand the process, don’t worry – our team of solar permit specialists at Avila Solar is here to help. We will work with you from the preliminary planning stage all the way through the permitting process to the successful completion of your solar energy system installation.

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