The Sun Is Shining On This Solar Suburb

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By Rachel DiFranco, Sustainability Coordinator, City of Fremont

It is not mere chance that more than 30 clean and green tech firms have found themselves residing in Fremont, the city that bridges the East Bay to the South Bay. Self-dubbed Silicon Valley East, the City of Fremont has been successful in attracting a number of clean technology businesses, including the following notable solar companies:

Solaria Corporation — A solar photovoltaic (PV) manufacturer situated at the north end of Fremont that was recently awarded more than $2 million by the Department of Energy’s Solar Manufacturing Technology (SolarMat) program to automate manufacturing process steps of its low-concentration silicon PV modules.

PetersenDean — A 30-year-old roofing and solar company boasting “1 million roofs installed,” whose national headquarters is located in central Fremont.

Centrosolar America, Inc. — A German-based manufacturer whose West Coast distribution center of its CentroPack® rooftop solar kits sits in southern Fremont’s Bayside Business Park.

To attract companies like these, the City of Fremont provides both clean tech and biotech firms a payroll tax exemption under the City’s Clean Technology and Biotechnology Business Tax Exemption Ordinance.

Supporting the growth of the solar industry locally is just one way that the City of Fremont is encouraging solar electric technology within its borders. Increasing the number of installations of on- site solar electric systems at residential and commercial locations throughout the community is a high priority for Fremont, helping to reduce the greenhouse gases (GHG) that come from these installations, which represent 39 percent of the City’s community-wide GHG emissions.

In order to make solar quicker and easier to install, the City has undertaken a number of initiatives aimed at streamlining the installation process. In 2006, Fremont turned its attention to reducing permitting fees for solar electric installations to levels reflecting the actual cost to administer, as recommended by the Sierra Club. At this same time, the cost of solar electric systems began to drop statewide. In 2006, solar electric costs averaged about $8 per watt installed; by 2013 the average cost had dropped to $4 – $5 per watt, cutting the cost nearly in half over just a seven year period. As the cost of solar decreased during this time, it is not surprising that the number of solar installations in Fremont took off, as shown in the graph below.

solar pv fremont graph

To continue its support of solar and other renewable energy technologies, the City of Fremont incorporated a Renewable Energy Ordinance into the City’s Municipal Code in 2012. This ordinance provides specific use allowances and flexibility in permitting for solar and wind energy systems, implementing policies of the Conservation Element of the City’s updated General Plan that calls for facilitating energy conservation and renewable energy production in new and existing buildings.

In addition to local permitting fee reductions and code changes, a number of external factors help to explain the growth in Fremont solar installations, including:

• The availability of state rebates under the California Solar Initiative beginning in 2006 and federal incentives under the Business Energy Investment Tax Credit and Residential Renewable Energy Tax Credit

• The influx of low-cost solar panels from China into the U.S. market (resulting in the U.S. Department of Commerce setting anti-dumping duties on China solar imports in 2012)

• The decrease in equipment and labor costs due to a maturing industry and economies of scale

• National efforts to reduce the “soft costs” of solar under the Department of Energy’s SunShot Initiative

With such an increase in the number of annual solar installations over the past handful of years, Fremont now ranks No. 13 within PG&E’s territory in terms of total megawatts (MW) of solar PV installed*. With a current total of 11.5 MW of installed capacity throughout the community, the City of Fremont is looking to increase that number significantly in the near future. By participating in the Regional Renewable Energy Procurement Project (R-REP) initiative to collaboratively purchase renewable energy for public facilities throughout Alameda, Contra Costa, San Mateo, and Santa Clara Counties, the City is exploring the installation of solar PV on six public facilities in Fremont (four municipal sites and two county sites). If this project goes through, it would add an additional 1.9 MW to Fremont’s existing solar power capacity.

Currently, the City of Fremont is tracking its progress on increasing the cost-effective installation of solar systems and developing stronger solar markets through the Solar Roadmap, a project of the Department of Energy’s American Solar Transformation Initiative**. Fremont’s efforts in its monthly newsletter, stating that “even in a region saturated with clean energy advances, the City of Fremont has made significant progress as a community to become a model for urban sustainability.”

Fremont rolled out a new process for solar permitting on March 1, 2014, based on the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research (OPR) California Solar Permitting Guidebook.

Mike Powers, Photovoltaic Installation Manager at Diablo Solar, was the first to be issued a solar permit through the new over-the-counter process.

“As far as the new process goes, I was extremely impressed. I have been dealing with building departments for the last 10 years (all solar), and have seen many changes over the years for submittal requirements and processes. For quite some time, we did not like dealing with the City of Fremont due to the time lines and requirements for plan sets,” states Powers.  “Fremont’s new over-the-counter process; however, is one of the easiest most streamlined I have dealt with. I was in an out in about an hour with my permit! I was shocked on how smooth the process went. Whereas before I had to wait numerous days, I was able to start my project the next day. I am a huge fan of the new process, and I look forward to the continued relationship with the City of Fremont”

The City’s new standard plan for residential solar photovoltaic systems (under 10 kilowatts) allows designers of PV systems to complete two documents and submit them along with a completed permit application over-the-counter and obtain permits without submitting the plans for a formal review. This over-the-counter process reduces the time a solar contractor needs to spend on paperwork and processing, meaning a faster start-to- finish installation process, reduced labor costs and happier customers.

With the City of Fremont’s multi-faceted approach to encouraging solar innovation and installation, it may soon earn a new nickname as “the solar suburb.”

fremontImage: First over-the-counter solar permit being successfully issued on March 13, 2014 to one of Fremont’s local solar contractors. From left to right: Teresa Garcia (City of Fremont Sr. Community Development Technician), Rick Gomes (City of Fremont Building Inspector), and Mike Powers (Photovoltaic Installation Manager at Diablo Solar).

*Source: California Solar Statistics maintained by the California Solar Initiative and the California Public Utilities Commission.

**The American Solar Transformation Initiative (ASTI) is part of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Rooftop Solar Challenge, a SunShot Initiative project.

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