September 20, 2011

California bills streamline solar project permitting

California’s legislature has sent a trio of bills, S.B. 267, S.B. 16 and A.B. X1 13, to Gov. Jerry Brown’s (D) office to streamline the permitting process for large-scale renewable energy projects. The bills were popular among both parties and provided certainty for project developers, and Brown is expected to sign them.

Streamlining of large-scale renewable energy projects through reduced permitting requirements has been a major impediment to the rapid adoption of more solar and is among the federal government’s goals in reducing the soft costs of solar through the SunShot Initiative. California solar installations would benefit.

However, streamlining these processes have their detractors. For instance, S.B. 267, which concerns water assessments for project in California, is still opposed by the Sierra Club, said Cori Ayala capital director for California Senator Michael Rubio (D).

Senate Bill 267, authored by Rubio (D), would reduce permitting time and fees for renewable energy projects like wind and photovoltaics that use less than 75 acre-feet of water per year (an acre-foot is equal to the amount of water it takes to cover an acre with a foot of water, equivalent to 325,851 gallons).

The bill excludes solar thermal and geothermal power plants because most exceed that amount of water use. Wind farms use very little water, sometimes as little as 1 acre-foot per year, and most photovoltaics use 40 acre-feet of water or less for cleaning purposes, according Ayala.

Under the legislation, the time from permitting to approval could be reduced significantly since the sites wouldn’t have to undergo a water supply assessment under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).

“Almost all local agencies started requiring the local water assessment, which can take up to six months to do and take up to $30,000 to do,” Ayala said.

That streamlining bill is complemented by another Rubio-sponsored bill.

“We do have another bill, S.B. 16, that will put in place a streamlined permitting process for incidental take permits. That’s not limited to wind and solar photovoltaics. It covers any renewable project that helps us meet our [renewable energy goals].” Ayala said.

The legislation would allow projects to pay additional fees to expedite the incidental take permits through the California Department of Fish and Game, she said.

“That should speed up the process for incidental take permits. The industry will pay permitting fees to support the expedited permitting. That fee increase is not in S.B. 16, [but is in] A.B. X1 13. That set up the fee structure. The two bills are joined, so if the Governor doesn’t sign both then neither goes [into effect],” Ayala said. “In the case of both of these bills, we’ve had contact with the administration, and they’re not controversial.”

While they will streamline the permitting process, they will add more fees for the expedited process, according to Ayala.

“I believe they can go as high as $250,000 based on the size of the project. Permitting time will be shorter, but the industry will be paying more if they want an expedited timeline for their project,” she said.

The renewables industry has supported the legislation, however.

“It’s not the money they’re concerned about. It’s the time.” Ayala said.

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