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Solar panel business confronts hodgepodge of regulations

| Sunday, Oct. 16, 2011

The hodgepodge of regulations -- or lack of regulation -- that governs use of solar power in Pennsylvania's 2,566 municipalities present a maze of challenges for those in the business.

"We run into regulatory issues all the time, almost every day. Sometimes municipalities are easy about installation. Others are not at all. They really all get to set their own rules. And many building inspectors know nothing about solar power," said Rich Foltz, president of Vox Energy Solutions LLC of McCandless, a company that installs solar panels.

In some cases, Vox has been asked for a full structural analysis of a home, something that costs thousands of dollars, as a requirement for installing solar panels. In other cases, the company has been required to pay a nominal amount for building permit.

"This is an electrical upgrade to the house. That's all it is. So rules for it have to be uniform and universal across the board," Foltz said.

Pennsylvania's structure as a commonwealth makes implementing uniform statewide regulations particularly difficult, said Maureen Mulligan, a lobbyist for the Pennsylvania Solar Industry Association.

"Municipalities have more control in a commonwealth state. So it is difficult to standardize zoning rules and permitting fees," she said.

Yet regulations are gradually becoming more uniform, which advocates of clean energy say will prompt growth in the industry.

Until August, the small South Hills borough of Brentwood had no rules or set fees for installation of solar panels in homes or businesses.

"Solar power is relatively new. Many smaller communities just do not have regulations in place to deal with it," said George Zboyovsky, Brentwood's manager.

Now Brentwood is one of 23 Allegheny County communities that have -- along with the city of Pittsburgh -- entered into an agreement that creates a unified ordinance for solar panels, streamlining zoning, permitting and inspection. That agreement puts the municipalities in the running for a $500,000 federal grant.

The state's larger cities, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, have had solar zoning guidelines since 2007, when each city was named as one of the country's 25 Solar America Cities. That year, Pittsburgh received a grant of almost $500,000 from the U.S. Department of Energy.

In Westmoreland County, the county's largest municipalities still have no specific zoning regulations for solar power.

"It's not even something that is even on the radar screen. It has not ever come up. I'm sure it eventually will come up, but I cannot recall having one request," said Kurt Ferguson, Hempfield Township manager.

James Morrison, chief administrator in Murrysville, said installation of solar panels there is handled through the building permit process.

"That could possibly change as they become more popular. It might have to get written in the zoning code," he said.

Kathy Risko, associate director of Congress of Neighboring Communities, or CONNECT, a project of the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh, helped organize passage of the unified South Hills solar ordinance.

"Twenty years ago, there were no requirements for cell towers. That's where we are now with regulations of solar power," she said.

Pennsylvania had nearly 100 megawatts of installed solar power capacity through 2010. The state ranked fourth in the nation in new solar energy installations in the first quarter of 2011, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Solar Energy Industries Association.

Many advocates of the industry say it needs government tax credits to flourish.

"Without subsidies, these businesses will not survive. It is still not a sustainable industry," said Jim Sloss, energy and utility manager for the city of Pittsburgh.

Yet in recent weeks, clean energy subsides have come under fire after bankruptcy of the solar company Solyndra, of Fremont, Calif., whose executives took the Fifth Amendment at a congressional hearing and whose CEO resigned Oct. 7. The federal government is on the hook for about $527 million in loan guarantees made to the company.

Some owners of solar businesses express confidence that the industry may now be ready to stand on its own.

"The industry does need to stand on its own. If it can work in Germany, it can work here," said Eric Casteel, president of the Solar Unified Network of Western Pennsylvania (SUNWPA), which represents about 30 installers and manufacturers, and the owner of Solar Tech., a company based in Hopwood, Fayette County.

The average installed cost of residential and commercial solar systems completed in 2010 fell by roughly 17 percent from the year before, and by an additional 11 percent within the first six months of 2011, according to a study just released by Department of Energy's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, Calif.

That trend persuaded Sam Lucci to power his Moon company, Partners Through People, with solar panels.

In September, Lucci spent $200,000 to install solar panels at the company and will receive $60,000 in federal tax credits for the expense. He expects his monthly electric bills, which average about $600, to fall by 80 percent.

"I like to protect the environment, but my main reason for doing this is money. I think electric rates will go up a lot in the future, the same way gasoline has," said Lucci, who also plans to install solar panels on his house.

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