A new report by the Sierra Club ranks Mountain View among the most expensive Bay Area cities for businesses that want to install solar panels, spurring a review of solar permit fees by city staff.
Of all the cities in San Mateo, Santa Clara and Alameda counties, Mountain View charged the second highest fee -- $2,200 -- to permit the sort of solar system a small business would use, typically a roof-mounted eight kilowatt system valued at $74,000.
The 52-city survey found that the average fee for that system was $680. A handful of cities are not charging any permit fees to businesses that want to go solar, including Los Altos Hills, Belmont and Foster City.
Mountain View has "a lot of room for improvement," said Kurt Newick, a solar panel installer who conducted the survey as a member of the Sierra Club. "They are charging way too much money."
"I personally don't think solar should get a free pass," said Bruce Karney, a local solar expert. "The cities that have waved the solar fee, like Foster City, I think that is noble of them but that means other permitted projects are picking up the cost for solar."
Newick said the high costs "absolutely" are a barrier for a small business considering solar, especially in a slow economy where every dollar counts. But David Basinger, acting building official, says he's not aware of any complaints about the cost.
Mountain View's fees are also well above average for medium and high powered commercial systems, Newick reports. A 49 kilowatt system valued at $475,000 would cost $5,330 in permit fees, and a 131 kilowatt system valued at $1.2 million would cost $17,100 in city fees. The averages are $2,062 and $4,631, respectively.
Basinger said Mountain View is reviewing its fees in response to the survey.
"We are aware of the issue and we are going to do something about it," Basinger said.
Mountain View lowered its fees for residential permits several years ago after a similar report by Newick. The city now charges a flat $152 fee to homeowners to inspect and permit solar panel installations on homes.
Despite the higher price tag, it doesn't take more time to permit a commercial system over a residential system, Newick said.
Basinger doesn't expect a loss of permit fees will significantly impact revenues for the building department. The city has only permitted a dozen solar projects for business use over the past few years, he said, though Google's is one of the largest ever built.