When the Colorado Solar Energy Industries Association recognized Denver as a Solar Friendly Community earlier this month, some conservation leaders in Colorado Springs wondered if this city could meet criteria.
The program is mostly focused on improving the soft costs associated with installing solar, said Rebecca Cantwell, senior program director for COSEIA. She spoke to a small gathering at one of the city’s Lunch-n Learn events last week.
“The cost of solar panels has dropped 75 percent in the last five years,” Cantwell said. “But non-hardware costs are not dropping as much as hardware costs.”
That means the cost of permitting and connecting projects has grown as a percentage of the cost of solar installations and can account for as much as 40 percent of the overall cost in some communities.
Cantwell said her organization has created a program to help communities streamline their processes, bring costs down and make solar easier and cheaper to permit. The program also recognizes communities based on how much they do. Communities can earn up to 1,600 points and are awarded a bronze designation at 700 points, with silver, gold and platinum levels above that. Denver received the gold designation.
“We’re wanting it to be a little more like putting in a new furnace than putting an addition on your house,” she said.
Cantwell said she will meet with the Pikes Peak Regional Building board of advisors in February to introduce them to the program and see if she can get them on board with improving the permitting process for solar installations. But she said she also hopes community members will reach out to city and building department leaders, since they will be the ones to benefit from lower costs.
“We’re going to be launching a discount program,” Cantwell said. “Our members will be offering discounts to customers in solar friendly communities.”
She said she’s not sure where Colorado Springs and the surrounding communities currently stand in terms of offering streamlined and affordable solar permitting.
“We’re finding that there are many communities that have already taken steps that get them very close to the bronze level,” she said. “It’s possible Colorado Springs is already close.”
Bob Croft, special projects coordinator for Pikes Peak Regional Building, said he’s never heard of the Solar Friendly Communities program, but that he feels the regional building requirements for solar are already pretty straightforward and relatively streamlined and affordable.
“It’s a very simple process on our part,” he said.
As long as contractors have everything in order, they can usually get their permit within 15 minutes, he said. He said some solar installations might have to be approved through the city zoning process as well, particularly if they increase the height of the home.
He said fees are based on the value of the systems.
For installations valued between $5,000 and $50,000, the fee is $176 for the first $5,000 and $6.75 for every additional $1,000. That means permitting a $30,000 solar installation would cost about $345. While more than the $75 permit for a new furnace, Croft said it’s a far cry from 40 percent.
“Quite honestly, with walk-through permitting and low fees, I think we’re kind of ahead of the curve,” Croft said.
While the Solar Friendly Communities program aims to make solar easier and more affordable, Cantwell said it’s also about building the industry.
“We’re trying to present it in a comprehensive way,” she said.
The impact could be huge in Colorado Springs because it’s one city under one government and the changes that regional building makes could also impact smaller communities like Manitou Springs, Fountain and Monument.
That means changes here could be applied quickly and sweep across a wide geographic area.
“A lot of communities we’re working with have found that it’s not that difficult to get to the bronze level,” she said.
Steps to becoming a solar-friendly community
|Use a standard permit||Yes|
|Streamline the process||15 minutes|
|Speed up permits||15 minutes|
|Cap costs||$500 residential|
|Adopt a standard license||State license|
|Offer inspection checklists||No|
|Inspection timeframes||Same day|
|Require only one inspection||No|
|Promote solar rights||N/A|
|Educate citizens on solar||Some via web|
|Track your solar progress||118 residential permits in 2012|
Many believe Colorado Springs Utilities does not allow third-party-owned systems or solar leasing programs like SolarCity and Sunrun to operate here. But CSU approved a regulations change in 2011 that allows it. SolarCity is currently working on a 1.7-megawatt rooftop installation at Peterson Air Force Base, said John Romero, general manger of acquisition, engineering and planning for CSU. Still, those companies have no marketing efforts in Colorado Springs.
Total Roofing has expanded its business to include solar.
The roofer started offering Dow Powerhouse solar shingles earlier this month and salesman Joel Beck said he’s already been getting calls from interested customers.
Beck said he and Total Roofing owner Scott McIntyre had been considering adding solar installation to the company’s menu of services for several months.
“It just makes perfect sense,” Beck said. “We’re on top of the house anyway. And where do you put solar but on the roof?”
They started researching their options for suppliers when Dow came to them. The chemical company launched its Powerhouse solar shingle product in Colorado a little more than a year ago and just started expanding the product and offering it to more vendors.
“They reached out to us,” Beck said.
As a large roofing company in southern Colorado, he said Total Roofing was attractive to Dow. And Dow has an attractive product for the roofing company because it’s not like regular solar photovoltaic panels. The solar is built into shingles that protect the roof from the elements, just like any other shingle, and that integrate with regular roofing materials and shingles.
Solar shingles are more expensive than regular shingles and more expensive than standard solar panels. But they’re generally less expensive than the two would cost together. Since most people who install solar also replace their roof, the combined product can offer cost savings.
It’s also a cosmetic advantage for homeowners who don’t want bulky solar panels protruding from their roofs, Beck said.