Standards, inspections, safety and freedom
By Drs. Robert & Sonia Vogl
President and Vice President
Illinois Renewable Energy Association
Early in our careers, we heard a presentation from the head of an industry organization whose mission included pushing for national standards in commercial kitchen equipment. Their concern was that variations in local standards prevented firms from manufacturing products that would be acceptable throughout the United States. With national standards, equipment manufacture could be standardized, enabling economies of scale, lowering prices and facilitating the development of national markets.
Variations in standards created a local market for decentralized manufacturing protecting smaller firms, their workers and the local tax base. The development of international standards further undermines local autonomy, which was the bedrock of American democracy.
We heard a similar call for national standards from an oil company executive frustrated by local communities blocking oil refineries siting. The executive wanted to build refineries anywhere in the United States they felt met their marketing needs.
Some wind farm proposals have been shelved, modified or delayed because of local resistance. At a meeting regarding siting a new power line, the spokesperson for the firm declared they were not required by law to seek local support but chose to do so to select a route that took into consideration local concerns.
Solar firms are frustrated by variations in local codes, procedures and standards, which add costs and slow the installation of systems. The need to secure local permits has been characterized as a critical roadblock to the implementation of a cost-effective solar industry.
A recent report issued by SunRun claims the permitting process can be streamlined and fees reduced without compromising system safety or increasing the workload of local officials. They recommend the Department of Energy lead a new Residential Solar Permitting Initiative that would reward cities that make the most effective, comprehensive permitting improvements.
We have received phone calls from both installers and users of renewable energy systems regarding problems they are facing with county officials in Illinois. State laws exempt renewable energy systems from property taxes as an incentive to their installation and use. Yet, some county policies appear to undermine this intent.
One township official assessed the tower supporting a wind generator at 70 percent of the initial cost of the entire system and has assigned an annual tax of $360 per year. The owner has challenged the decision.
Another county is requiring an on-site inspection by a structural engineer for any roof installation of a solar system to determine if the roof can support it. The engineer’s fee of $500 was paid without protest as the owner did not want the project delayed.
Local governments pressed for revenues are searching for ways to increase income to cover the costs of their services so such actions are not surprising.
Renewable energy interests are likely to seek relief from local controls. Citizens who feel their interests are threatened will continue to resist some renewable energy installations. If local considerations are ignored, public cynicism is certain to increase.
It is time for local governments to develop energy plans so they are not left reacting to outside forces. As the Wall Street banking-induced economic crisis demonstrates, placing blind faith in markets has a dark side.
Drs. Robert and Sonia Vogl are founders and officers of the Illinois Renewable Energy Association (IREA) and coordinate the annual Renewable Energy and Sustainable Lifestyle Fair. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.