Palo Alto takes heat over solar permitting – Palo Alto Online

Barry Cinnamon is a true believer when it comes to solar power.

For the past 20 years, his Campbell-based company, Cinnamon Energy Systems, has been installing solar panels and energy storage systems all over the Peninsula — with one notable exception. About 10 years ago, he decided to stop working in Palo Alto — stifled by the high costs and city’s chronic permitting delays.

“Palo Alto is so bad with solar permitting that every single reputable solar company has basically abandoned and refused to do solar and solar storage work in Palo Alto,” Cinnamon told this news organization in a recent interview. “It’s so expensive, time consuming and frustrating.”

He recalled the 2010 incident that made him throw in the towel. First, the city requested that he provide them with a printed installation manual for the solar inverter that his company was installing, even though it was available online. After he submitted one — and waited more than three weeks for a response — the city requested a specification for a bracket he would use to attach the inverter to the wall. He provided that and waited a few more weeks. Then he was asked to provide engineering drawings for the screws he would use to attach the bracket that affixes the inverter to the wall. Then more waiting.

By the time Cinnamon was asked for specifications for the torque tool his company was using to drill in the screws for the bracket, he had accumulated a 5-inch-thick loose-leaf notebook of engineering plans and supporting documents.

And he’d had enough.

“I called the customer and said, ‘We’re done.’ We walked away and gave the customer’s deposit back,” Cinnamon said. “We saw that this is never going to end.”

Cinnamon is hardly alone. Contractors and Palo Alto residents are awash with horror stories about the city’s permitting process, whether for solar systems, generators or electric vehicle chargers. Some companies, like Cinnamon’s, now stay away from Palo Alto altogether. Others, like Cobalt Power, add a $2,500 surcharge when installing in Palo Alto, according to emails from the company that the Utilities Advisory Commission saw last month.

“It’s a shame because Palo Alto has so many residents who really care about the environment, are concerned about climate change and want to do something to help,” Cobalt CEO Mark Byington told this news organization in an email.

Cobalt, he noted, has “hung in there” and continues to work in the city. There are people in Development Services who really care about what they do and try to serve the community, Byington said.

“But other times personalities get in the way, and it seems to take on a life of its own, and becomes a power play or an adversarial situation,” he said.

While Palo Alto’s permitting snafus are far from new, they have become more pronounced as more residents switch to electric vehicles, put up solar panels and install energy solar systems like Tesla’s Powerwall — a trend that the city ostensibly encourages. The City Council’s plan to reduce carbon emissions by 80% by 2030, with 1990 as the baseline, banks on widespread electrification of cars and buildings. The city’s implementation plan includes the policy: “Increase energy resilience by assessing opportunities for local distributed energy resources, energy storage, microgrid installations, and home-to-grid.” The goal, already viewed by many as aspirational, will be practically impossible if the cost of going electric remains prohibitively high for potential customers and area contractors.

The Utilities Advisory Commission acknowledged that at its April 7 meeting when it discussed the city’s permitting process and generally agreed that it needs to be reformed.

“This issue does appear to be acute at this point,” Chair Lisa Forssell said. “Taken specifically in light of the city’s sustainability goals — 80×30, (with) electrification being a major component of that — it’s really important to make it as streamlined as possible.”

Contractors and residents offer a variety of reasons for the delays: confusing rules; uniquely rigorous requirements; and inspectors who seem to go out of their way to make the process as long and as painful as possible.

Several contractors, including Cinnamon, speculate that the city has a financial incentive not to approve solar installations. Palo Alto, after all, owns its own municipal utility, which sells electricity to customers. More solar panels and energy storage systems, the thinking goes, means less reliance by local homeowners on the city’s utilities.

“I have to hand it to the city. It’s commendable that electric rates in Palo Alto are cheaper than electric rates in PG&E. That’s great. But the city makes money by selling electricity, and that money goes to support everything going on in the city,” Cinnamon said.

David Coale, a solar installer and board member in the advocacy group Carbon Free Palo Alto, thinks the issues have more do with City Hall culture. Coale has been advocating for reforms to Palo Alto’s permitting process for nearly two decades. He suggested at the April 7 meeting of the utilities panel that it’s time for the city to simply outsource permitting. The city, he said, has proven that it either doesn’t want to — or can’t — fix the problems.

“It will be difficult to fix it with the same culture and same personnel that are still there,” Coale said at the hearing. “And it’s an ongoing problem. It’s a proven problem that’s long overdue to be fixed.”

In recent interviews, Coale was one of several contractors who singled out inspector Rhonda Parkhurst, a national expert in electric systems whose passion for imposing requirements that don’t exist anywhere else has helped drive contractors out of the city. Some inspectors, Coale said, won’t leave a job unless they find something wrong and make you fix it. Parkhurst, he said, seems to go out of her way to make things difficult for solar installers. (Several other contractors echoed that assessment.)

“The torque test that they do on mechanical and electrical systems — no other jurisdiction does that. And if you have Rhonda as an inspector, she’ll point at the most difficult panel to reach 100% of the time,” Coale said.

The city declined to make Parkhurst available for an interview for this article. Planning Director Jonathan Lait said he is unable to discuss personnel issues involving individual employees, though he noted that the city has recently made moves to reform and improve its inspection process. Under one recently adopted procedure, building inspectors now work in pairs — an approach that allows them to learn from each other and that aims to “reinforce a common approach to customer service.”

The city has also taken steps to improve coordination between inspectors from different departments. For smaller projects, a building inspector can now perform inspections that previously required separate visits from Development Services, Fire and Utilities. For larger and more complex ones, the departments are coordinating their visits to avoid having to perform inspections at different times of the day — a move that he said will save customers time.

“We want to perform this work with a focus on customer service that is consistent, professional and respectful of our time and their time,” Lait said.

Lait also rejected any insinuation that the city’s status as a seller of electricity creates an incentive for its inspectors to slow down solar panel installations. Delaying installations, he said, would run completely against the city’s values and its focus on sustainability, he said.

“Rolling out solar energy in the city is a council priority. It’s a priority shared by Utilities and the Planning and Development Services departments, and we’re committed to serving these efforts.”

But environmental activists like Coale, who is working with Palo Alto to help reform its permitting process, say the city has historically made it hard to even broach the subject of easing some of the existing requirements.

“When you start, they immediately go to, ‘You want us to make it more unsafe?’ That’s the type of conversations they hold. At one meeting I was called an arsonist — like I wanted to burn houses down,” Coale said.

That conversation, however, is starting to evolve. Last month, city staff and the Utilities Advisory Commission acknowledged that Palo Alto’s requirements for solar installations are indeed tougher than they are elsewhere and that the city needs to reform — and speed up — its permitting process.

There’s little doubt, however, that the city’s ownership of its utilities contributes to the permitting snags that customers often experience. Permit approvals in Palo Alto require coordination between the Development Services, Fire and Utilities departments, which until recently often entailed multiple inspections by representatives from the different departments.

In addition to the building permit application, Palo Alto customers are required to submit an interconnection agreement with detailed information about the photovoltaic system for review by the Utilities Department. This review includes confirmation by Utilities that the system meets a long list of requirements, including the ability to shut off the power in each battery or powerwall and a dedicated disconnect system for the photovoltaic system — requirements that do not exist in neighboring jurisdictions.

Don Jackson, who concluded his term on the Utilities Advisory Commission last week, compared the experience of installing a solar installation in Palo Alto and meeting all the interconnection requirements to refinancing a mortgage. At the April 7 discussion, Jackson urged the city to take a close look at these requirements and revise them so as to “optimize the cost of complexity of electrification projects.”

“We’re really trying to push the envelope on electrification,” Jackson said. “We have aggressive goals. We’re trying to be a leader to the region, to the rest of the state, to the rest of the country, and our interconnection requirements and code have to support that. … We’re really shooting ourselves and our residents in the feet here.”

For Jackson, the issue hits particularly close to home. In a recent interview, he recalled his own experience in looking for a contractor to install an electric storage system at his home.

“When I went to bid, I had who I would consider to be a very qualified contractor in the area say, ‘I’m not going to bid your job in Palo Alto because we don’t serve Palo Alto,'” said Jackson, who was speaking as an individual and not as a representative of the commission. “They don’t go into a lot of reasons why, but when you put that experience with what you’ve heard, it’s easy to see why they’re saying that. There are easier places for them to do business and they prefer to do business in those areas.”

To be sure, customer experiences aren’t uniformly bad. Permits to install small photovoltaic systems — up to 10 kilowatts — can be obtained quickly through an over-the-counter process. Larger and more complex systems, however, have to go through the “express” or “regular” process, with the latter reserved for more complex projects, including those that contain multiple systems (such as solar panels, electric vehicle charging stations and storage systems). And despite the procedural maze that contractors are often forced to run through, many residents remain committed to electrifying their homes, cars and appliances and to install solar panels.

According to a report from TRC, a firm that the city commissioned to review its permitting process, the city approved 115 permits for photovoltaic systems in 2020, up from 99 in 2019 and 100 in 2018. The report does not list the number of permits it has approved for electric storage systems, though Jackson estimated that there are about 20 such installations in Palo Alto.

Nancy Cohen, a resident of Barron Park, said she was able to get through the permitting process for solar panels at her home in just a few weeks. The process was so easy that the only problem she had encountered with her system was when one of her grandchildren hit the GFCI button, which knocked off power. Cohen, who installed her panels in 2017, said enjoys both the environmental and economical benefits of generating electricity at her own home.

“I go many months of the year with no electric bill,” Cohen said.

Jackson also noted that he had no problems with the city’s permitting process when undertaking other projects — namely, installations of an electric HVAC unit and an electric water heater — but things became more opaque and difficult when he began to plan out his solar project, which includes panels and a storage system.

Much of the difficulty, he said, stems from the fact that both solar panels and electric storage systems are relatively new technologies. The building code is “outmoded” and does not keep up with the latest advances, he suggested.

“Rapidly evolving space is not something that building codes are optimized around,” Jackson said in an interview.

The report from TRC, which surveyed 13 county jurisdictions, largely supports the prevalent view that Palo Alto’s permitting process is longer, more complex and more difficult than it is elsewhere. It includes a “pre-application” phase, which other cities lack, and a host of requirements that go “above and beyond neighboring jurisdictions,” the report states.

These include a dedicated AC disconnect for photovoltaic systems; separate shutoffs for photovoltaics and energy storage systems in projects that include both components; and a requirement that utility applications be submitted during the building permit process, even though key details of the new system — including size and specification — may not yet be finalized.

The TRC report notes that the city’s inspection checklists are also “longer than (in) other jurisdictions” and include requirements for a placard diagramming where all the shutoffs are located. The report concluded that while Palo Alto’s “over-the-counter” process is comparable to that in other jurisdictions, it’s timelines for both “express” and “regular” plan reviews are generally longer by comparison.

Contractors who were interviewed by TRC “consistently reported that inspections for residential PV, EV charging, and ESS were excessively detailed and onerous compared to other jurisdictions, including requirements such as torquing all connections,” the report states.

“Because of those detailed inspection procedures, contractors also reported that the electrical inspector often splits inspections for PV systems into two separate visits (not counting re-inspection for correcting errors), contrary to the state mandates requiring a single inspection for small residential PV systems,” the report states, alluding to Assembly Bill 2188, a 2014 law that requires a streamlined, over-the-counter process with a single inspection for solar installations with up to 10 kilowatts. (The law still provides for longer time-frames when larger systems are involved.)

The pandemic has only worsened the city’s permitting problems by forcing Development Services to close its counters and shift its services online, according to city staff and TRC. Removing face-to-face counter hours, the report noted, “inevitably slows the review process for some permit types and limits opportunities for collaboration and problem solving with customers, within the department, and with other departments such as Utilities.”

Lait also suggested at the April 7 meeting that the pandemic has made the process more complicated.

“For the kind of work we would’ve done in office, we have to do three times as much remotely,” Lait said during the April 7 discussion.

Now, in response to complaints from customers — some of whom had been trapped in the permitting system for six months or longer — and commissioners, the city is trying to avoid the pitfalls by encouraging more interactions between inspectors and contractors. Under a new procedure, the city now schedules virtual meetings with contractors whose applications require more than one submission, with the goal of resolving any snag early in the process.

Lait said the city is also reviewing the plan-check requirements from all of the departments and will be posting them online so that contractors “will not get caught off guard.”

He acknowledged that better coordination between departments is key. Just recently, Lait said, he spoke to a contractor who was complaining about the fact that three different departments required him to include a disconnect on his system — which resulted in him having three disconnects. After a conversation that involved the chief building official and building inspectors, the city determined that the project actually requires just one disconnect, though another one may be needed in the future if the system is redesigned.

“These are the kinds of things we’re working out,” Lait said. “We’re at a place where we’re not out of the woods yet, but over time — and not over a long period of time — I’d expect the system to be a lot smoother than it has been, certainly over the past year, but even better than it was before. Because we expect a lot more applications to come in.”

While COVID-19 exacerbated the city’s permitting problems, numerous contractors have maintained that many of the issues — namely, the city’s onerous requirements and rigid City Hall culture — precede the pandemic and will likely outlive it. The TRC report concluded that Development Services staff “lack clean guidance on plan review for new electrification technologies” and that Palo Alto’s excessive inspection practices fail to comply with the state’s inspection mandates for photovoltaic systems.

TRC recommended that the city “comply with state-mandated single inspection for PV systems and reduce the burden of electrical inspection by limiting the scope of the inspection to what is accessible at the time of inspection.” It also urged the city to “eliminate requirements that exceed code or ordinance requirements” and that the city “improve communications with customers and contractors by consolidating information documents in a more accessible location.”

Lait assured the commission that he is taking the report’s recommendations and the contractors’ comments “very seriously.” He said he is working with the Utilities and Fire departments to eliminate the delays that continue to plague the process. He also pledged to talk to managers in the various departments about “what their responsibilities and authorities are” and suggested that recently hired inspectors will help address the cultural issues cited by Coale and others.

“While I acknowledge we still have a lot of familiar faces that are part of our program for a number of years — we also have some new people who are engaged in this and are motivated to make some changes,” Lait said. “I’m a little bit more optimistic, but I understand why others might not be, about our ability to make some changes in this regard.”

The Utilities Advisory Commission overwhelmingly agreed that the Palo Alto permitting process needs an overhaul, with numerous commissioners recommending that the city bring its requirements for photovoltaic systems into alignment with other cities’. Jackson suggested that the TRC report may have underplayed the city’s permitting problems.

“It’s not in the best interest of contractors to criticize the Palo Alto planning department on the record,” Jackson said. “The report, as decent and good as it is — it’s pretty seriously underestimating the size of the issue here.”

Michael Danaher, who like Jackson concluded his commission tenure last week, recommended that the city “immediately suspend any requirements that aren’t enforced by neighboring jurisdictions.” The city, he said, should have “a high bar” for reinstating those requirements, or any new ones that aren’t in place anywhere else.

“We need a procedural way to counterbalance institutional tendencies to be extra cautious,” Danaher said.

Commissioner A.C. Johnston concurred and said the city should have a procedure for requiring the Utilities Department to “justify” any requirements that are not imposed by other jurisdictions. Commissioner Lauren Smith made a similar point.

“If it’s OK in nearby jurisdictions, it should be OK in Palo Alto,” Smith said. “That mostly makes sense to me. There’s no reason to think that safety is no more of a priority in other local communities.”

Lait committed to returning to the commission in about four months with a report about the progress the city has made in streamlining its permitting process. He also assured the commission that the city will address the “truly outrageous” turnaround times of four to five months that some customers have reportedly experienced over the past year.

“If we’re asking for requirements that go above and beyond state law, clearly there’s an area there that we need to take a look at and see why we’re doing that,” Lait said.

While Palo Alto is working to speed up its internal process, state legislators are also exploring ways to speed up permitting for solar installations across the Golden State — a key component in California’s ambitious goal to cut greenhouse-gas emissions by 40% by 2030, with 1990 as the baseline. Senate Bill 617, which is authored by State Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, would require cities and counties to establish online systems that instantaneously issue permits for solar energy systems no larger than 38.4 kilowatts. Under the proposed legislation, cities with populations of 50,000 and higher would need to adopt such platforms by Sept. 30, 2022. Wiener noted in a statement that numerous Bay Area cities, including Pleasant Hill and San Jose, already use online permitting for solar installations. According to Wiener’s office, San Jose has seen a 600% increase in approvals since it upgraded its permitting system in 2016.

During an April 26 hearing of the Committee on Energy, Utilities and Communications, Wiener argued that SB 617 is above all “a climate bill” and suggested that automated permitting systems are needed to help California achieve its climate goals.

“Currently only 10% of ratepayers have solar energy. That number needs to triple in the next decade if we expect to meet our clean energy goals,” Wiener said before the committee voted 12-2 to support the legislation and forward it to the Appropriation Committee.

Lait said that regardless of whether the bill passes or not, he is interested in having the city explore technology that speeds up the process. Conceptually, he said, doing online permitting for small projects is a good idea, provided that the system can address the city’s safety concerns.

“I think the idea of leveraging our permitting system in that manner is positive,” Lait said.

While the utilities commission lauded staff’s ongoing push to speed up the process, neither Cinnamon nor Coale are entirely convinced that these efforts will bear fruit any time soon. Last summer, Cinnamon returned to Palo Alto to perform a solar installation after a nearly decadelong hiatus to see if anything had changed. To his chagrin, the application was still making its way through city permitting as of last week.

He compared the process to San Jose, where his company has completed entire installations within a week. Both San Jose and Saratoga, he said, take between two and three hours to approve a solar battery permit. All Palo Alto has to do if it wants to improve the situation is copy what those cities are doing.

“I have very little confidence that this admirable (reform) effort will be successful,” Cinnamon said. “Simplifying the process is something every surrounding community has done. All they have to do is adopt best practices.”

Lait said the city is doing exactly that. Staff is now surveying other utilities to see what kinds of requirements they have for things like AC disconnects. Energy storage, he noted, “is a rapidly changing field,” and the city wants to make sure that any new systems have proper safeguards to ensure that they can be switched off when employees are checking meters or performing maintenance on its electric system.

“We’re doing our best to keep up with technology to make sure we have safe energy systems,” Lait said.

Some problems, he noted, had already been fixed. The TRC report cited Palo Alto’s peculiar practice of requiring contractors to follow stringent formatting requirements when submitting documents, which includes bookmarking and indexing. Lait said that the city has already scuttled these requirements.

Building officials are also looking at easing some zoning rules to encourage electrification, which may include relaxing setback requirements from property lines to allow electric storage systems and heat pump water heaters in side yards, Lait said.

The city is also committing to getting things done faster, he said. Its newly adopted timelines call for completing small projects within two weeks and to get larger ones approved within 30 days. He encouraged contractors who face complications to email him ([email protected]). He also suggested that contractors who tried to apply during the pandemic and experienced massive delays try again. They will see that “it’s a different story” now.

“If it’s not, then I’ve got a bigger problem,” Lait added.

Coale, for his part, believes that the city must improve the culture within the Development Services department as part of the reform process. Even if the city follows the commission’s direction to require staff to “justify” Palo Alto-only requirements, expert inspectors will always find ways to justify even the most useless requirements. To do otherwise, Coale said, would be to imply that employees had been wrong to impose those requirements. That, he suggested, is unlikely to happen at City Hall.

“The city stands by their people no matter what, to the end,” Coale said. “There’s no downside to the city if they make it more difficult for contractors, no downside if a contractor charges extra $2,500 for permitting. They don’t get dinged in any way.

“The ding comes to contractors or installers and homeowners. They have to pay the price — in time and money.”


May 21, 2021 susan ward