The Blaine County commissioners appear reluctant to increase fees for installing solar water-heating systems, as has been suggested by the county’s building department.
During a well-attended meeting Tuesday at the old Blaine County Courthouse in Hailey, county Building Official Bill Dyer recommended increasing the current $195 fee, which he said does not cover the costs of processing the permits and conducting inspections. He suggested a sliding scale of fees based on the cost of the system, from $293 for a single-panel system to $700 for a four-panel system.
However, eight members of the public, including Sagebrush Solar owner Billy Mann and architect Dale Bates, told the commissioners that the county should be willing to subsidize the permitting costs to provide an incentive for people to install solar panels.
Mann said the proposed new fee schedule would triple the fee for a typical solar hot-water system, delaying the payback time from the current eight years to 10 years.
“Unless we can get it into the six-year range, solar will not scale into the mainstream,” he said.
In a letter to the commissioners, Mann cited a “redundant and overly complicated permitting process” as being partly responsible for the fact that less than 1 percent of homes in the Wood River Valley have solar-heated water.
“This is precisely why I’ve only sold about 50 systems in the six years I’ve been in business, why most of the systems we’ve installed are in Ketchum and Hailey (where the permitting process and fees aren’t prohibitive), and why I’m the only contractor in Blaine County who’s been issued a solar permit,” he stated.
Hailey charges a flat fee of $75 for a solar-installation permit. Ketchum charges $52 per hour for inspection time, and Mann said in an interview that those inspections usually take about an hour.
“Solar needs to be stimulated in Blaine County—not stifled,” Mann stated in his letter. “If you are for solar and are for stimulating the growth of an exciting new sector in our local economy, you need to be against increasing the cost of installing solar and against penalizing our citizens for doing the right thing.”
Mann stated that he had roughly calculated that valley residents spend $80 million per year on electricity and natural gas for heating and hot water.
“If even half of this were spent on local products and services, it would bring our economy an extra $40 million, which will be spent several times over,” he stated.
During the meeting, Bates said the purpose of planning departments is to set policies that create the kind of community that residents want.
“I hope you find a way to make it easier, not harder, to move in the direction that we really want to go,” he said.
Following public testimony, all three commissioners emphasized their support for providing incentives to install solar hot-water systems, but said they want to see more details on building department costs before making a decision on whether to increase the fee.
“We have to balance our policy goals with managing our expenses,” Commissioner Larry Schoen said.
The commissioners did not set a date to rehear the issue, but building department officials were scheduled to begin meeting with the commissioners individually on Monday.
Schoen told Mann that he would welcome suggestions from him on how the permitting process could be streamlined.
In an interview, Mann said, “The code is great. The problem has been some of the implementation. There’s a lot of excessive engineering required.”
Mann said he was pleased with the commissioners’ interest in addressing those topics.
“They’re making definite efforts to make these things right,” he said.