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Solar permit demand surges

By TOM CALLIS

By TOM CALLIS

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Tribune-Herald staff writer

Applications for solar power are on the rise and so is the amount of time it takes to get a permit.

The Hawaii County Public Works Department had received nearly 1,100 permit applications for the installation of photovoltaic systems as of July 31. That’s more than the 972 it received in all of 2011.

“And the year’s not over yet,” said Public Works Director Warren Lee.

“We expect a big surge at the end of the year for tax credits.”

More permits also mean longer wait times.

Last year, a proposed photovoltaic project would take 14 days to be approved. Now it takes between 28 and 30 days, Lee said.

That has frustrated electrical contractors in need of work during a sluggish economy.

But the volume is only part of the problem, they say.

Last November, the county began also requiring a building permit to install photovoltaic and solar-powered water heating systems as well as an electrical permit.

Lee said the change was made to ensure that the building the panels are being put on is structurally sound.

“Residential roofs can be old,” he said.

“It’s a public health and safety issue,” he added.

For some, it’s also turning out to be an economic issue.

Phil Harris of P.A. Harris Electrical Contractors said delays in getting permits have caused him to layoff staff.

“It’s not that we don’t have the work,” he said. “But we can’t get the permits.”

Kaleo Chung, office manager for Walters Electric, said he has two permits he has been waiting to get approved since June.

“There’s really no need for it in my opinion,” he said.

“Ninety-five percent (of projects) don’t pound one extra lumber or one extra nail.”

Rod Hinokawa of Hinokawa Electric also said he doesn’t think the additional permit is needed.

“If it was heavy it would be understandable, but this is light,” he said.

Hawaii County isn’t alone in requiring a building permit.

Honolulu and Kauai counties also require it, though Honolulu folds it into one permit.

Maui County only requires an electrical permit, said Greg Nakao, an electrical inspector with the county.

In Honolulu County, residential photovoltaic permits can take three to four weeks to process.

Applications are also up there.

In fiscal year 2012 (July 1, 2011-June 30, 2012), Honolulu County issued more than 6,850 photovoltaic building permits, Honolulu County Department of Planning and Permitting spokesman Curtis Lum said in an email. That’s up from 3,102 in fiscal year 2011.

Lee said the county is making efforts to improve the permitting process.

That includes an online permit tracking system that started in late March.

Lee said the department is also putting together permit guidelines to guide applicants through the process. Next month, it plans to start allowing applications to be submitted online.

The director met with electrical contractors in Kailua-Kona and Hilo earlier this month to address their concerns.

He said the department has a goal of reducing the wait time to 20 days.

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The department added two staff positions last year to handle commercial permit applications, but isn’t planning to add anymore, Lee said.

Email Tom Callis at tcallis@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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