Friday, December 3, 2010

County approves solar-energy ordinance

New law sets standards and building fees

Express Staff Writer

Saving money on energy bills got easier this week with Blaine County's approval of a new solar power ordinance.

County commissioners voted unanimously Tuesday to approve the proposed "solar collector ordinance." The ordinance sets standards for installation of solar collector systems, which can be used for space heating or for hot water systems.

Systems are required to meet certain wind load and height specifications, and photovoltaic panels (traditional solar panels that transform sunlight into electricity) must be certified by the Solar Rating and Certification Corp., a nonprofit organization based in Florida.

"It's important that people know there's a framework for permitting these facilities so they can go forward with some measure of confidence," Commissioner Larry Schoen said.

Prior to the ordinance's approval, solar collector systems were not regulated under county code.

The new ordinance is accompanied by a modified fee schedule. Rather than the percentage-based building permit fees some installers had been paying before the ordinance was passed, the newly created solar permit comes with a flat fee.

Sagebrush Solar owner Billy Mann said the flat fee is well below what a homeowner would ordinarily pay for a building permit.

"That can be a $1,200 fee," said Mann, who helped draft the ordinance and who recommended a flat fee for the permits.

He said the flat fee will help solar installers compete with natural gas prices and also reduce the payback period for the systems.

If the system is located outside an overlay zone such as the Scenic Highway Overlay District or a floodplain, permits will cost $195. That cost covers staff time for a structural plan review and a zoning review of the system.

If the system is proposed within a special overlay zone, the landowner will need to pay an additional $175 for an administrative review. The extra costs are associated with the additional staff time required for a site visit and a review of overlay solar standards to determine whether the system would be permitted.

"The flat fee makes it more approachable," Schoen said. "We want to encourage the use of solar energy."

Though the commissioners approved the ordinance, they still must sign the findings before it goes into effect. If they sign the findings during their meeting Dec. 7, the ordinance will likely go into effect before the first of the year.

Katherine Wutz:

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