Solar panels installed on rooftop framework Tuesday at Ives Pool in Sebastopol are designed to generate electricity and avoid rising energy costs to operate the pool's pumps. Sebastopol-based Solar Works designed the system. (MARK ARONOFF / THE PRESS DEMOCRAT) 2004

Sebastopol may require solar arrays on new businesses

The city of Sebastopol, which prides itself on being a small community with a big solar energy footprint, will consider requiring photovoltaic arrays on new commercial construction.

"It would be groundbreaking and it could really lead towards something," said Councilman Patrick Slayter, an architect who is proposing the idea. "The city of Sebastopol and the County of Sonoma have pretty aggressive greenhouse gas reduction goals and this is moving towards meeting them."

If the city adopts Slayter's proposal, it will be among the first in the nation.

While there are many incentives to solar development in the form of rebates and credits and many renewable energy goals, there are few absolute mandates.

Culver City in Southern California requires solar on very large commercial developments, Hawaii requires solar water heaters on new homes and Japan is considering requiring solar on all new buildings following the Fukushima nuclear facility disaster, according to reports.

Sebastopol is a pioneer in solar energy, said Tom Kimbis, vice president of the Solar Energy Industries Association and the former director of Solar America, a $4.9 million federal program in which 25 cities, including Sebastopol, developed solar programs.

"It is something that would work for some cities and be inappropriate for other cities that are not as far along the deployment curve," Kimbis said. "Some cities are just installing their first solar panels. Sebastopol is on the other extreme. It could be a model for other cities their size."

A solar system on a commercial building could cost $40,000 to $75,000, but with tax incentives and rebates, it could pay for itself in five or six years, Slayter said.

The city already requires contractors to put in solar infrastructure on all new buildings, but the city's building ordinance stops short of requiring systems be installed. As a matter of practice, however, solar has become commonplace on homes and commercial and public buildings.

There has been 1 megawatt of solar energy developed on homes, businesses and public buildings since 2003, enough electricity to power 500,000 homes.

"I think Sebastopol has the highest per capita of solar anywhere in the country," said Vice Mayor Michael Kyse, a retired energy consultant. "We partly do it for the environment and we partly do it because it makes sense."

Making solar a requirement is just the next step, Slayter said.

"If owners are doing it voluntarily and doing it with a tremendous payback, why not make it a requirement," Slayter said.

Slayter is asking the council to appoint a subcommittee to come up with an ordinance, which would determine how large a project would have to be to trigger a requirement, how big the system would be, whether residential projects would be included and if it would apply to remodeling.

"I don't want it to be an impediment to builders of small projects, costwise. If it gets to be too expensive, then nothing will happen," Slayter said.

As a starting point, Slayter is proposing it apply to commercial buildings of 4,000 square feet or by major remodeling of large commercial buildings.

Such a requirement would have applied to the controversial CVS Pharmacy and Chase Bank branch project, which the City Council approved even though it could not convince the developer to include solar.

It would also have applied to the Barlow project, where solar is part of the ongoing construction; the recent Community Church remodeling; and a commercial building that is part of the Hollyhock subdivision.

Since 2003, when it began keeping statistics, there has been 1 megawatt of solar power developed in Sebastopol and other jurisdictions have looked to Sebastopol for guidance, said Glenn Schainblatt, the city's building official.

From 2007 to 2009, Sebastopol has also been at the top of lists for solar installations and the power generated for small cities, according to a study done by the Northern California Solar Energy Association.

"We have been pretty influential for such a small little town," Schainblatt said. "People come up here and say that we have solar everywhere."

The City Council is meeting at 6 p.m. Tuesday in the Youth Annex.

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