Solar Smackdown in Torrance – Installer Sues City on Behalf of the Sun

Nice Guy-LargeAfter a decade in the solar power installation business, Bradley Bartz is tired of being Mr. Nice Guy.  He’s tried the sugar and honey approach for ten years but instead of catching flies he’s caught hassles and obstructions from local Southern California city officials who haven’t kept up with modern technology and remain both ignorant and adversarial when it comes to helping their citizens go solar.

Idiots!” is what Bartz calls them and he’s doing more than name calling.  He’s filed suit against Torrance, the proud home of Exxon/Mobil’s refinery, for stopping him from installing solar panels in the Hillside Overlay district.

In this exclusive and wide-ranging interview with your Creative Greenius, the outspoken Bradley Bartz of ABC Solar shares the inside story of not only his legal suit against Torrance, but his broader plans to force cities to live up to the state’s California Solar Rights Act, his unique views on the California’s solar rebate program and his red tape experiences in dealing with Southern California Edison.                              

decal_logoThe Torrance Hillside Overlay district, covers most of the historic Hollywood Riviera neighborhood where the Creative Greenius lives and I can tell you that it’s a zoning law that is pure politics.  Its wholly interpretive guidelines can be used to approve or disapprove a building, addition or remodel completely on subjective principles.  These zoning decisions blow in whichever direction the development winds are gusting in the city at the moment and there is no consistency, logic or equity in the decisions made.

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See how this house towers over the one next to it? Hillside Overlay "Harmony"

Just look at the mustard-colored monstrosity of grotesquery the developers who moved next door to me constructed.  It tripled the square footage of the previous hacienda house, one of the Riviera’s original beauties.  Oh how it dwarfs the normal-sized other homes all around it.

Just two people live in its 3,000+ energy-wasting square feet.  It’s a five minute walk to the beach but it’s got central air conditioning.  It’s also got a state of the art in-wall vacuuming system but it’s got no solar panels or solar hot water because that wasn’t part of the builders vision for their “dream house.”

These owner-builders had no problem adding a climate-changing mini-mansion that sticks out like a sore thumb into our previously harmonious neighborhood, but they would have faced a big battle with the city if they had wanted solar panels because our city government and city staff don’t know much about solar and they haven’t proven to be too interested in helping people who want to change to clean, renewable energy – like me.

So it’s no wonder that I was more than interested in talking to Bradley Bartz after reading the story headlined “Torrance man’s battle with city over solar heats up” on the Daily Breeze web site.

As usual, my thinning, anorexic local micro paper did a so-so job in their reporting.  The Breeze got their own headline wrong since Bradley isn’t a “Torrance man” he lives in Rancho Palos Verdes where his business is based, as it says in paragraph five of their article, but you’ve got to cut them some slack because their legacy ship is sinking.  Besides, what do you expect for nothing, on-line?

But Bradley thought the article was fine in telling the basic details of his story.  We spoke for one hour and forty minutes on the evening of Cinco de Mayo last week.

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BRADLEY
Nick Green of the Breeze did a good job reporting.  Going through what my complaint was and talking to city officials and reporting that yeah, I’m complaining about a process that shouldn’t exist.

The current status of my case with Torrance is, the day the article came out (on April 28, 2009) I got a call from the Planning Dept. and they said, “Hey, we’re ready to see you.”  So I went in and saw them, and they gave me the plan, stamped it and waved their fees – very nice of them.

I went down to the Building Dept and they said, “It will be two weeks before we get back to you.”  And I said, “Well, the city attorney called me this morning and said I should ask for this gentlemen.”  So I did ask for him and she reluctantly brought him over and he said, “Oh yeah, yeah, we’re fine with it.  The second copy set you gave us is a little light. Could you make us another copy?”  And I said, “All right, I’ll make you another copy”  And then he says, “Oh, by the way, you need to go to the Fire Department and get their approval.”  And I said, “Oh… any chance you could have told me that six weeks ago?”

So I went across to the Fire Department and they were all nice and polite as firemen generally are and I dropped off the plan.  And there it sat until today, Tuesday, and I brought it in last Wednesday.  And then the senior gentlemen in the building with the Safety Dept. called me and said, “Hey Brad, you know when you headed off to see the Fire Department?  You disappeared and never came back.  What happened?”

I said, “Well, the plan’s still at the Fire Department, I don’t know what I’m supposed to do.”

GREENIUS
Were they expecting you to wait at the fire department for a response?

BRADLEY
For 10 days apparently.  Next time I’ll bring a tent.

So with that, the fireman, I don’t recall his name, called me up and started asking about the install.  They’re now adopting the guidelines in Torrance based on the guidelines of the state.  They haven’t adopted anything yet, but they’re still going to hold me to it.

GREENIUS
I just read the article in the June/July issue of Homepower magazine written by two firemen who have solar panels on their roofs.  I’m only now becoming aware of the “three foot rule” that many are pushing.

homepower-magazine-coverFROM HOMEPOWER MAGAZINE written by Fire engineer Matthew Paiss:

Access, pathways, and smoke-ventilation space:
Providing a 3-foot setback from the edges of the roofline
from gutter to ridge will ensure that firefighters can get
onto and off the roof rapidly, if necessary. There is also
a recommendation to provide a 3-foot setback along the
ridgeline for ventilation. This is a highly contentious area,
given the value of that space to both the fire service and
solar installers. Alternative means of compliance are
being considered.

BRADLEY
Right, the three foot rule.  So the nice fire gentlemen asked me, “So how much space do I have to the ridge and I said, ‘None!’  And he said, “What do you mean, ‘none?’”  And I told him well, the roof’s 11 feet and my panels are five and a half feet and there are two of them, so two rows, that’s eleven feet and you get nothing.”  And he said, “Well, I don’t know about that,” and I said, “It’s a 2,000 square foot house and I’m using only 200 square feet of the roof in the back left corner of the house that you’ll never ladder.

107233782AUdhfi_fsJOE
With a mandatory shutoff, right?

BRADLEY
Yeah!  A mandatory shut off and color glossy and Alice’s Restaurant signatures and all sorts of stuff like this.  I feel like I’m living through an Arlo Gutherie song I can’t believe it.

Anyway, the fireman said he’s go talk to the chief and I just told him as best I could, “Look, you’re interpreting the rules incorrectly.”  I’ll probably call the city attorney tomorrow and ask him to give me the formal document from the city adopting the fire department rules because it’s from that date of formal adoption that I have 180 days according to Calif contractor code to actually live up to said code.

GREENIUS
It’s sounding to me like some of this is being made up on the fly without any real consultation or education or discovery process.  I would have thought we would be beyond that point and further along in understanding the solar industry, but apparently I’m wrong.

BRAD
No, it’s still fresh.  I’m still going to cities where it’s like “Gosh, this is number three (the third system installed in town).  I just did the second system in the city of Inglewood.”

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An ABC Solar installation

GREENIUS
I’ve talked to some installers who have told me Redondo Beach’s Fire Dept is a tough one to deal with.  They say some of our South Bay cities are too tough to deal with and they don’t like installing any solar in those cities.  Some won’t even give you a quote if you live there.

BRAD
Yeah, you give up.  I gave up on L.A.  I gave up on them.  I stopped marketing, pulled my radio ads and said, “bleep-this,” I stopped selling in the city of L.A. because of their Fire Department rules.

Recently though, I went in with two projects.  One of them had the three feet, it’s a big roof, so no big deal.  The other one I only had a foot and a half and she rejected it at the counter and I said “I’d like to appeal.”  And she looked at me and said, “What?”  And I said, “I’d like to appeal.  Right now.”   So she says, “Okay, I’ll get a fireman.”  And she gets the fireman and he comes over, takes a look at the plan and says “Yeah, it’ll be fine.”

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An ABC Solar installation

GREENIUS
So it’s so arbitrary that just from a business standpoint it’s got to be maddening.  How do you plan for that?  What if that fireman isn’t there that day?

BRAD
I have a new t-shirt that I wear for these occasions.  Black, big white letters on the front of it.  It says, “I AM THE SQUEAKY WHEEL

GREENIUS
That’s the NON-sugar and honey approach, which I assume you’ve already tried?

BRAD
Ten years of sugar and honey, Joe.  Ten years.

GREENIUS
I can understand it.

BRAD
You know, now it’s just, “I’m sorry, get out of the way.”

GREENIUS
So excuse me if I’m wrong, but it seems like there’s A) a real need and B) a real opportunity – and I don’t mean from a money making standpoint, but an opportunity to educate people at the local level – city staff, inspectors…

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BRAD
And I hope that this lawsuit does that.  Because the point of the lawsuit is a very arcane little niche piece of law that I’ve hung my hat on that says, look the Solar Rights Act and its amendments over the years clearly state that esthetic reviews are null and unenforceable and should be removed.  That’s the law of the land, that’s the law of California and it needs to be enforced.

A LOSING STRATEGY

GREENIUS
Well I live in the Hollywood Riviera in the Hillside Overlay District.  So I have a unique interest in your case.  And I’ve also sued the City of Torrance in the past over the Overlay, and I lost.

BRAD
Oh, okay.

GREENIUS
And it was a rather quick and arbitrary process whereby the judge was very much predisposed not to be too interested in a grassroots kind of suit.

BRAD
I hope I lose, Joe.  I hope I lose. I hope to god… you gotta understand the lawyer from the city of Torrance told me something very important the other day.

GREENIUS
In using the word “esthetic?”

BRAD
Well no, that they already blew.  They’re on the bleeping public record saying its “esthetic” but it’s not.

The city attorney asked me if I would dismiss my case if the city of Torrance would change their rules.  I said I would consider it, but that I was really hoping to establish a precedent, legally speaking, beyond Torrance.

I want it to be all of California.  I want to change the industry here because I deal in a lot of cities, a LOT of cities.   And this is boring.  I want it to go away.  Torrance just happened to be the lucky number.  It could have been Redondo Beach, it could have been Glendora, it could have been Cerritos.  Those are all cities that I don’t care for.  It could have been any of them.

GREENIUS
And by that I’m sure you don’t mean the people who live in those cities.

BRAD
No!  They’re great.  I mean the governments.

So I asked the attorney about the precedent and he said, “Brad you don’t understand law.  The local court is only going to be effective on Torrance and you.  Period.  It doesn’t effect other people unless it goes to appeal.  And that’s why I’d love to lose it.  Because I’ll appeal it.

GREENIUS
Although, not a terrible second option to have them change the rules here.

BRAD
Oh I think that would be a great outcome locally and “Yeah team!”

GREENIUS
Well, that’s one way to start a precedent too.

BRAD
It is.  I’ll take the same documents to the next city.

GREENIUS
Right.  And maybe even encourage your fellow installers in other cities to use the same tactic and get some kind of momentum on a broader basis.

BRAD
Well, I’m considering it.  I have permits being pulled in 25 cities right now, so I have the ability to be that prick one city at a time.

TELL ME ABOUT TORRANCE

mapOfDistress-HollywoodRivieraGREENIUS
Is this part of Torrance’s history when it comes to installing solar in the city?

BRAD
No.  In the past I’ve been able to use subcontractors who haven’t had any problem pulling permits in the non Hillside Overlay area.

GREENIUS
So that’s what’s unique about this, is it the Hillside Overlay?

BRAD
Yeah, that’s what’s unique, the Hillside Overlay and the planning department – even though I pointed out the law to them said, “No, we discussed it with our lawyers and we’re going to make you jump through this hoop.”

GREENIUS
And was there a public hearing where the neighbors came and discussed this?

BRAD
No I had to go get four signatures and I could only get two of them because two of them weren’t home.  They sent letters but the letters weren’t responded to because the two homes were bleeping empty.  It’s just this mind-blowing waste of time.

And then to be thrown to the fire department, it’s just like, wow.  I can’t wait to explain that to the judge – if the judge will listen to me.  I’ll tell the judge – particularly as you say you lost your case and the judge has deference for Torrance, I’ll be public in court and say, “I will be appealing this so I hope you take this very seriously.”

And so that’s the latest on my case with the Torrance Hillside Overlay.  I still don’t have my permit and I’m now stuck at the Fire Department who thinks they should be doing something about it.

GREENIUS
Would it be fair to say you’re relishing this challenge, or “fight” even?

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This is not Bradley Bartz.

BRAD
Oh yeah.  As my wife knows I love a good fight, particularly when I’m right.  I’m right.  And I’m careful about choosing these fights because they’re very exhausting.  And they’re very dangerous from a credibility point of view as a business.  It is a dangerous stick to go ahead and pull the trigger.  I have other people in this business and architects who say “Hey, don’t worry.  Hire me and I’ll take care of it for you.”

GREENIUS
What’s the level of expertise and experience of the building inspectors and city staff?

BRAD
The building inspectors, limited at best.  And they’re getting what I like to call artificial training.  Some bleeping professor pulled out some bleeping thing and said these are the 40 things you need to ask people when they pull permits in your city.

GREENIUS
Well where are the trade associations?

BRAD
They’re immature trade associations.  This is still an immature industry.

GREENIUS
But it would seem they’d still want to at least offer you some kind of support, even if it was only a letter.

BRAD
Well they do and they’ve been very supportive in the background.  Especially the veterans, I get a lot of support.  And I’m careful of how much to use of that support because Torrance is only a little battle.  And so I don’t want to spend my wad here in Torrance.  This seems to me an easy fight.

The municipal code is so blatantly against the Solar Rights Act it’s just, “All right judge, go ahead and rule against me, because I’m going to appeal and somebody is going to overrule you and then I get to win what I needed to win.  And the city of Torrance will spend a hundred grand to have a judge do that.  Or whatever it costs.

GREENIUS
And if you’re a resident of the city of Torrance who wants to get solar right now in the Hillside Overlay district you’re caught in the middle and you’re screwed.

BRAD
Which means that I’m playing that credibility game because if I lose, then people will be mad because I made it harder.  Oh well.

THE GOOD GUYS AND BAD GUYS OF SOUTH BAY SOLAR

NewSupermanGREENIUS
So how does Torrance compare to other South Bay cities?  Who are the good guys?

BRAD
Rancho Palos Verdes are the good guys.  They’re my heroes.  That department – brilliant, progressive tough.  They’re not pushovers by any stretch. You’ve got to show you’re going to show that you’re going to build something that’s going to look good – not from the aesthetic point of view, from the building point of view.

They’re my heroes, they really are.

GREENIUS
Is that because they’ve taken the time and trouble to also learn and get educated along the way?

BRAD (agreeing)
Along the way.  They’ve always been receptive to it, and very open.  A little bit of a challenge but not enough to stop you.  They want to make sure you’re a contractor, right?  That you’re going to go do your work.  I’ve been pleased with them.

In Palos Verdes Estates the building inspector has been groovy.  The inspector is knowledgeable and all that.  The art jury is just full of bleep.

GREENIUS
Well… you’re always going to run up against people who say, “I just think those panels are ugly.”

BRAD
Redondo Beach was a nightmare.  If I never sell another system there it will be fine with me.  Manhattan Beach?  Free permits, but the Fire Dept has a three foot rule.  I’ve already been snookered out of a few installations. You look at the roof and you say, “Oh well.”  If I could install I could solarize Manhattan Beach.

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An ABC Solar installation

Manhattan Beach, they had a big argument about undergrounding utilities, right, Joe?  $50,000 per house.  Someone was going to make a fortune at $50k a household.

I went and spoke to their City Council and said “For $50,000 a house I’ll put in solar AND battery systems and take you off the grid.  If you don’t use their (SCE) power, you don’t need their poles!  Everything else is wireless.”

If you’re going to do it, take the homes off the grid.

GREENIUS
That’s pretty mean to the rest of the grid.  Don’t you want to share?  Don’t you want to pump some green power into some dirty places?

BRAD
Oh I do, I do.  I want to sell power to Texas, because we can.  I want to change the state motto from “The Golden State” to “The Solar State.”

GREENIUS
There’s no reason we shouldn’t.  We have the wherewithal. If we followed Gainsville Florida’s lead and voted in feed-in tariffs people would be renting roof space to put up more solar.

BRAD
Well you look at Germany and four companies vie for each roof space.

GREENIUS
And now Gainesville, Florida has a real estate boom going on only it’s for roofs and not ground.

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An ABC Solar Installation

BRAD
The game is exciting and the cities and building departments should be the ones on board and not sitting back and going, “Gee I wonder how I’m going to create some work today.”

GREENIUS
It does occur to me that we’ve been talking about the difficulties a lot of these local folks have and a lot of it stems from ignorance or lack of experience with solar.  And it seems to me they should all be going on the May 16 EPN Solar Homes Tour to find out first hand what the hell they’re talking about.

BRAD
Well I hope you can encourage City Council members to come, particularly in Torrance.  I’ll be at one of the houses happily explaining a really nice little system.

GREENIUS
You won’t be mean to them if they come, will you?

BRAD
I’m about as polite as you can be.  Just because I file lawsuits doesn’t mean I have to be ugly.

BRADLEY’S BACKGROUND IN SOLAR

GREENIUS
Tell me what got you into solar, how long you’ve been in that business and how many installs you’ve done.

BRAD
When I got back from Japan in 2000 I didn’t want to start a computer business.  I was looking around at what to do next.  I had a view of 180 degrees of L.A. and I said, “Look at all those naked roofs.”

As I started to investigate I did the same thing I’ve done with every business I started since I was 14 years old, which is call old timers in the business and ask them to lunch.

GREENIUS
In 2000 there couldn’t have been too many old timers in the solar industry.

21-0645BRAD
No, but I knew who they were and they wrote the books and they lived in L.A.  Joel Davidson would be the primary one.  He runs a company called solarsolar at solarsolar.com He wrote the bible of the industry years ago “The New Solar Electric Home” (now in its 3rd printing).
He’s a great resource and wonderful guy and he’s a old solar hippy.

GREENIUS
And was kind enough to share his experiences?  He was probably flattered that someone asked.

BRAD
Not really.  He’d had guru status for a long time before I came along, so a lot of people like me had come through the door.  His basic rule, which I’ve lived by was, “Look I’ll teach you, but you’ve got to promise to teach on.  Pass it on.  And I said sure, I agree.  That’s why I have all those DVDs on line.  That’s why I have all those solar installation videos.  It’s part of my tribute to him.  It’s part of the way I say “thanks.”

JoelFran

Joel Davidson, Fran Orner of SolarSolar

And because of him… the thing that he said to me that was most important, because I knew I wanted to be in the business the moment I met him, because he was a geek!  Yay!  He wasn’t a finance guy, thinking “I’m going to make money.”  He was a geek.  He loved the technology.  He loved all the nuances and the whole thing.  The evangelical side of it.

LEARNING TO REJECT THE REBATES

0812_CSIConsumerGuideAdAnd he said to me, “Brad when you design your business remember that the rebate programs are designed for big companies and they will turn them on and off to get rid of you.”  And he said it in the most stark way that somebody could say something like that.
And it stuck and I watched over the years as these rebate programs got turned on and off.  On and off.  Delay of payments of up to a year.  And I watched my competitors jump in with all the gleam and enthusiasm that you could imagine only to get friggin burned.

GREENIUS
And by that do you mean they were fronting the costs of the rebates and then not recouping them from the utilities?

BRAD
That’s correct.  Remember that cash flow is king.

GREENIUS
I’ve been amazed that most companies seem to front the cost, even start ups.

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An ABC Solar Installation

BRAD
Yeah, I don’t carry rebates.  That’s the other thing Joel says, is you don’t carry rebates.  “It’s their bleeping roof.  It’s their roof, it’s not going on my house, it’s their house.”

GREENIUS
Well that must make it tough competitive-wise because it seems like the majority of the installers I talk to DO carry the rebate for the customer up front.

BRAD
Then they’re idiots.

GREENIUS
They may be, but from a business standpoint doesn’t that give them an advantage?

BRAD
From a business standpoint it’s been the same for ten years. I’ve always had competitors who carry the rebates and I’ve always called them idiots.

GREENIUS
And do you wind up offering your customers some kind of assistance in filing the rebate form?

BRAD
Oh yeah.  We do all the paperwork.  Do all the permitting.  We’re turnkey.

GREENIUS
You just make them wait to get the rebate from the utility?

BRAD
Yeah, they can afford it.  But we take care of everything.  All you do is give me a check and “poof” your meter starts spinning backwards.

GREENIUS
Oh yeah, it’s just coming up with that big up front check in this economy that’s the tough part.

BRAD
It’s expensive and my clients don’t finance.  Because for one, financing isn’t available anymore and two, early adopters are a different crowd.

GREENIUS
So you found a mentor and this is part of your pattern as an entrepreneur…

BRAD
And that allowed me to know that this is something I wanted to do.   And then I jumped into it with a strategy I call “Surround the Space” You’ll see that right there in the center is my customer.  And then my strategy, slowly, is what do I do to become this person’s vendor.

solar-power

GREENIUS
And where did you get your early training?  Did you intern with Davidson?

BRAD
No.  I went out and got training from Bill Brooks and some certificates and then trial by fire.  Got up on roofs.

GREENIUS
And did you start with your own company or did you work for somebody else?

BRAD
No I always started myself.

GREENIUS
It must have been a brave first customer who let you start poking holes in their roof to put the supports and rails in.

BRAD
Yes.  Absolutely.  Laura Hamilton.

GREENIUS
Did you do your own house first?

BRAD
I did experiments on my house first, yes.  I still do.  Of course.  As long as I have sunshine you know there’s something going on in my backyard.

There’s always the brave first client, that’s always true.  But it took a year to get that first blood.  And I earned it.  And the thing that slowed me down in building this business faster than I would have in my business plan is that 9-11 kind of took a year out.  And I wasn’t interested in selling solar based on, “Hey it prevents oil,” you know.  It was just too much of a nexus for me.  So I spent time with my kids.
Anyway, after almost ten years we’ve done about 100 installs and about 80-90% of those are residential.  Our average size system is 3.6 kilowatts.

GREENIUS
And are most of those people trying to replace 100% of their electricity through solar?

BRAD
No, most of them are 60-70% cause I never overbuild for people.

GREENIUS
Is that because there’s no incentive to due to net metering?

BRAD
There’s no incentive to.  If there was an incentive, then a lot of the clients have more money than god and they’d just put panels everywhere.  And they would.  They would.  They have enough roof space and it would be no problem.

DID SOMEONE MENTION SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA EDISON?

SolarRooftop

ProLogis rooftop solar in Fontana

GREENIUS
And how do you feel about that?

BRAD
Well, Edison has decided to rent the roofs from ProLogis (607,000 square feet in Fontana for 2.2 mW of power) and there’s a law, Assembly Bill something or other, that’s going to allow them to do that since its an exception to their charter.  So they had to seek permission to do what they are doing and by changing the charter it allows us to do it.

Edison is awful.  They’re just friggin awful.  Their latest thing is, you send in an application and the husband signs the contract, right, but the electric bill is in the wife’s name so they reject the application.  I just find it offensive.  The meter is at the same address.  The meter doesn’t care whose name is on the bill or the contract its attached to the address.

GREENIUS
So what I’m hearing about both Torrance and SCE is we’ve got two entities that promote themselves using green all the time, in fact Torrance just announced a big, new, green website for Torrance businesses.  A partnership between the city and the Chamber of Commerce.

I find it interesting that they, along with Edison have positioned themselves as big advocates and pushers of solar – and you’d expect them to be since AB 32 mandates that 20% of our electricity come from renewable energy next year and we’re only at 13.5% right now —

BRAD
Edison is worse than the government.  At least with the government you usually only need to bring them two copies.  They’re awful.  It’s a mind-numbing 44 page process and you just go, “You’ve got to be friggin killing me”  Luckily I”m an Oracle database programmer so I’ve automated all of it.  But it’s still a lot of work to get it in.  Automating it is part of my competitive advantage.

GREENIUS
With your experience you can no doubt tell me if that should be an on-line experience that you take care of in about five minutes.

BRAD
You pay your taxes on-line.  You pay your corporate taxes on-line.  I move $30,000, $50,000 with my little password on-line all the time.  Move big amounts of money around.  And I can’t press a button to submit a rebate application to a utility company who already knows me (because I have an account with them), who already takes my money and knows my usage history?  You’ve got to be kidding me

LOOKING FOR A SOLAR HERO

GREENIUS
So who is the champion?  That’s the part I’m missing here.  It’s not SCE.  It’s not anyone in any of the South Bay city governments.  So who is the local, South Bay solar champion who we turn to when we have problems like the ones you’re discussing?  Is it our State Senator, Jenny Oropeza?  Have you talked to Assemblyman Ted Lieu?

BRAD
I haven’t but it’s probably worth it.  Kevin Murray would be the name so far as politicians who seemed to be early in it.  (Former California State Senator Kevin Murray who authored SB 1, the Million Solar Roofs bill).

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You had Assemblywoman Wolk, who I think is Senator now, that is terrific.  (California State Senator Lois Wolk, 5th District)

Have you seen the Wolk PV letter?

GREENIUS
No.

BRAD
I’ll send it to you.  It’s brilliant.

And as far as the local hero.  Most everything has gone on up north.  They lead us four to one in installations too.

GREENIUS
So what I’m seeing as a result of what you’re telling me, if there was a smart politician down south here, there is a wide open position for the person who wants to lead the cavalry charge down here.  A unique point of differentiation between you and your competition politically.

BRAD
I think there’s room for the old timers to move aside.  We need a dynamic industry association.  The old timers have done a good job of bringing it this far but  – if you will – it’s time to bring it out of the garage.

But I don’t know that it’s necessary though.  Because if you remember how the Internet grew a few years ago it was kind of like a flash pan, wasn’t it?  All of a sudden it was on fire.

THE HOLY GRAIL OF SOLAR: $3 A WATT, CHEAPER THAN COAL

holygrail

GREENIUS
But I think a big part of that was Moore’s law and things becoming really affordable.  We were the early adopters and we were willing to pay.

BRAD
But we’re approaching $3 a watt installed.  That’s the Rubicon!  That’s the magical number, It’s the magic bullet, it’s always been written.  It has
always been written!

GREENIUS (Laughing)
And do you believe?  You sound like you do.

BRAD
I do, I do!   I can’t believe that I happen to be the guy – because I know the guys who used to sell panels for $75 and $100 a watt.  I know them, I lived in Japan. I know these people, I’ve sat and had conversations with them.  I know these folks.

GREENIUS
Is three dollars a watt going to make this industry explode?

BRAD
At $3 a watt – as soon as people grasp what that means – at $3 a watt you’re sub-ten year payback for a 40 year product.  And at sub $3 you’re cheaper than coal.

GREENIUS
And people have no idea what’s coming with coal and what that’s going to cost them in electric bills?

BRAD
No.  I mean you’re cheaper than coal today at $3 today – You’re cheaper than coal today.  Now remember that’s subsidized, that’s the argument against it.  “Well you’re 50% subsidized,” people say.  Yeah, that’s right.  But in five years from now it won’t be and it will be below $3 a watt.

GREENIUS
And you and I both know that the coal industry has been heavily subsidized for years now.

BRAD
Well yeah.  Why don’t you look at your bill and see the Nuclear Decommissioning taxes on your electric bill.  That’s not an operating thing, that’s to decommission.

HOW EFFECTIVE IS SOLAR POWER FOR SOUTH BAY HOMES?

IMG_3413GREENIUS
So let me talk about a more pleasant subject and that is producing solar in our South Bay communities and the productivity and efficiency of PV systems down here.  I’ve heard from a wide variety of people – people who don’t have solar “Oh the marine layer and the May/June Gloom…”

BRAD
It’s a 20% hit in production.

GREENIUS
Do you wind up in these areas just increasing the number of panels?

BRAD
Yeah, that’s all you do, right?  So if a system was going to make 500 KwH a month it will make 400.  Just build a bigger system.

GREENIUS
And do you see that 20% number changing with efficiency rates on different panels?

BRAD
That’s just a function of physics.  Efficiencies of solar panels are based on the size of the panels and the watts you’re getting.  A first tier panel at 200 watts is 13 square feet.  A second tier panel is 15 square feet.  That’s the difference.

And there’s a 20% price jump between second and first tier panels.  Why?  I don’t know.  I can’t justify it to my clients because they’re still getting a 200 watt panel.

GREENIUS
Explain the difference between first and second tier panels for us.

sunpower-solar-panels-001

Sunpower panels

BRAD
Well Sunpower and Sanyo are first tier, meaning in the field they’re converting at about a 16% efficiency rate I believe.  It’s about efficiency.

Sanyo HIT

Sanyo HIT panel

GREENIUS
They’re expensive though.  But I have seen that the prices on the those Sanyo HIT panels dropping down below $900 a panel.  I’m seeing the prices drop on most panels I monitor.

BRAD
And they’re going to get cheaper too.  Isn’t it beautiful?

GREENIUS
But that’s a tough one too, because when you tell people that the forecast is for continued price reductions as more big solar panel plants come on line – a lot of people want to wait then.

BRAD
We’re about to hit a flatline in terms of panel prices.

NO LOVE FOR THE CALIFORNIA SOLAR INITIATIVE REBATES, BRADLEY?

Go_Solar_LogoGREENIUS: We’re also about to drop from the $2.20 a watt to $1.90 a watt rebate-wise for SCE if we haven’t already.  I know we’re pretty close to that Megawatt number that triggers the drop.

BRAD
Yeah we haven’t hit it as of yesterday, but any moment now.  But that’s all right because I can’t wait for the rebates to go away, Joe.

GREENIUS
And I would imagine that’s a unique stance in your business.

BRAD
No, I think most of my competitors would agree.  They don’t want to deal with Edison for rebate money.

GREENIUS
So it’s the hassle of Edison and the hassle of the rebate–

BRAD
Look, I have spent, on some of the rebate applications, more time on the paperwork then it took my crew to install. I don’t care what people think is the difference between paperwork and boots on the ground.  Paperwork is much more money.

GREENIUS: But what do you say to a customer like me that says —

BRAD
Oh we’ll take care of it.  Don’t worry, Joe, you won’t see it.  And when they send you corrections and mistakes, ignore them.  We’ll take care of them.

GREENIUS
No, I mean if the rebate goes away what happens to my price to install solar?

doe_eere_ca_solarfp

BRAD
If the rebate goes away you’ll be at an installed price of about $3 a watt – which is what I expect it to be after the rebates have gone away.

GREENIUS
So it will be a wash, price-wise for the customer?

BRAD
I figure we’re about to hit a five year stasis in prices

GREENIUS
Is that because of increased production of panels?

BRAD
It’s two things.  You have the rebates lowering and the cost of the panels lowering at the same time.  So if the rebate lowers thirty cents and the price lowers thirty cents it’s still the same net cost to the customer.

GREENIUS
And if the rebate goes away you expect the panel price to drop and make up the difference?

BRAD
Yes, without a doubt.

GREENIUS
Well it certainly won’t matter to the customer and I think everyone would be happier not to have to jump through hoops with the utility for the rebate.  Though you’re still going to have to deal with the utility to hook you up to the grid.

BRAD
And that needs to be made smoother.  Why I have to send the electric company a copy of the electric bill is absolutely beyond me.  And not only a copy but one within four months.

HOW’S CALIFORNIA DOING ON THE MILLION ROOFS INITIATIVE?

montage

GREENIUS
I think it’s kind of pitiful that with the conditions we have for generating solar here in the state of California we’ve got less than 1/3 of one 1% of our state’s electricity currently coming from solar power – and that includes all the large scale solar too.  So the percentage of residential roofs with solar is even lower than that .

BRAD
Well let’s see, they want to do a million roofs by 2016 and they’re up to 70,000 now.

GREENIUS
That’s pitiful.

BRAD
Isn’t it?  932,000 to go.  And they put a six week permit processes and a nine month rebate processes for each one of those 932,000.  I wonder how efficient that will be.

GREENIUS

So they’re not really serious about this program because there’s nothing they’re doing to accelerate it?

BRAD
Are you kidding me?  If they were serious about it we’d be number one on the planet.  Instead, America is number four!  We’re behind Spain! We’re behind German, behind Japan even.

GREENIUS
Granted, they’re all known as much sunnier places than California.

BRAD (laughing)
Yeah, especially Germany.

GREENIUS (laughing)
Well when you’re thinking sunny and bright you’re naturally thinking the Black Forest.

WHAT’S THE MILLION DOLLAR QUESTION WHEN IT COMES TO SOLAR?

photo1

GREENIUS
All right, when we get to that $3 a watt price, how do we even let people know that that’s a significant number?  How does that even translate to the average consumer?

BRAD
Well that’s the million dollar marketing question.  You’re familiar with the adoption cycle.  At some point in the adoption cycle you have five or six distinct categories.  You have different messaging.  Today’s messaging, and I keep telling them, needs to come from the manufacturers.  It’s their turn to do the marketing.  According to what I’ve read and studied in my business career in watching markets grow.

GREENIUS
It seems like I’ve started to see that coming from Sharp.

BRAD
You’ve seen a little bit of it, but not enough.  Sharp and Mitsubishi have done a little.  They’re marketing direct to trade and that’s a groovy thing to do, you’ve got to do it.

But when a customer calls me and says, “Do you install Mitsubishi panels?”  Well yes mam, I do.  Then I know Mitsubishi is doing its job.

I know your question is what should the message be to consumers.  Let’s see… we’re not late adopters at this point.  Not yet mid-adopters.  Late early adopters.

GREENIUS
Okay.  Not the beginning of the end, but the end of the beginning.

photo3

BRAD
We haven’t crested over the top of the bell.

GREENIUS
We’re not even close.  We’re not even at 1%.  We’re not even at 1/2 of 1%!

BRAD
No, we’re not.  So early adopters – you’re still looking at people who want to be ahead of the curve, there’s a fashion sense to it.  My customers like the technology.  Because it’s fun.

GREENIUS
No doubt.  It’s interesting what percentage of people who were early adopters of solar have also become early adopters of electric vehicles too.

BRAD
Well, more so now than it was prior to 2006 and that’s just because electric cars are becoming more readily available.

And I get a lot of people who say, “Well you say I need a five Kw system but if I buy that electric car wouldn’t I need a 7.6…” I mean they have the number.

I love what I do, it’s a neat industry.

IT’S NOT ABOUT THE ENVIRONMENT, IT’S ABOUT SPINNING THINGS FAST

GREENIUS
Beyond the neatness of it all, what level of environmental urgency do you have in terms of solar?

photo5

BRAD
I have an energy urgency.  I’m an inventor.  At least I fancy myself one.  And the problem right now in America is everyone hasn’t unlocked this enormous free energy that’s flowing around us.  The environment?  It’s a great problem and we’re all going to have to fix it.  But if we had more power, we could do more fixing.

GREENIUS
By power do you mean specifically renewable power?

BRAD

When electricity costs 35 cents a kWh for some guy in his garage do you think he’s going to spin anything fast in his garage?  No.  Do you think he’s going to run his hot tub?  No.  So he’s not going to relax.  Wait till electricity costs 50 cents a kWh.  People will turn their lights off and quit bleeping reading!  Think I’m kidding?  No.  Food’s expensive.  That’s where my urgency is and I mean it – as you can hear it – with all of my heart.  I want to invent.  I want to spin things really fast and not hurt the environment when I’m doing it.  But I do, I want to spin things very fast (LAUGHING).
photo4

GREENIUS
What is that urge all about?  What kinds of things do you want to spin very fast?

BRAD
Well, I’d love to retire to along one of the rivers in New Hampshire where you have a cotton gin.  Where they had a water wheel spinning that then turned leather straps to then ran sewing machines.  That’s spinning.   Spinning is industrial.

GREENIUS
So spinning is powering things?

BRAD
Spinning is powering things.  Yeah, absolutely.  Pumping things, water pumping.  You want to fix global warming?  Why don’t we use nuclear power in Antarctica all winter long and desalinate water and freeze it?  You’re going to need the power to actually pump that kind of water, so get over it and pump that kind of water and let’s freeze it.  It’s a damn freezer.

The environment is very, very important to me but the reason we spin things, and that’s causing problems for the environment, we spin things fast so your lights are on right now.  So we can speak on the telephone.  Some generator is burning coal out there in Arizona.

GREENIUS
But it doesn’t have to be.

BRAD
No, it doesn’t have to be.  For local manufacturing?  We can build solar panels here.  It’s nice that they’re teaching former gangbangers – if you will – how to install solar, but let’s teach them how to make them.

GREENIUS
Well I don’t think you’ll get any argument from anyone here in Southern California about adding that kind of manufacturing capabilities here.

BRAD
Yeah!  Let’s bring manufacturing back.  Including solar powered plants.  Why not?

GREENIUS
Anybody talking about doing that?

BRAD
There’s a lot of manufacturers who are doing assembly operations here in California.  And there will be more of them.

GREENIUS
Assembly of parts shipped from overseas?

BRAD
Right, because ultimately you have to heat silicon in one manufacturing process to 1600 degrees Celsius.  Very energy intensive process.  That’s something you should centralize.  And then the wafers are sent and assembled into power plants.  That’s how it’s done now.  Because the crucibles and all that, that’s the heavy machinery part.  Melting things to 1600 degrees Celsius is a big deal.  I’d like to do it with the sun, but that’s a different project.

showdown_the_1950_685x385

GREENIUS
What would be your message to local Torrance residents in regards to what you think is going to go on with this suit?

BRAD
I think that whether I win or I lose it will be somewhat called the Bloomburg effect.  You know that after me it will be easier, but my jobs may not be the easiest.  But I don’t care because they can’t stop me my jobs will just take a little bit longer.  But ultimately most of the people were horrified, that I spoke to in Torrance that this is turned into such a fiasco. Including their attorney.

GREENIUS
I’m wondering if you’re advising anyone you speak to who’s a Torrance homeowner or business owner to write to the Mayor and the City Council?

BRAD
A lot of people have and people have called me to say that they did, which is nice.  And I encourage people to go express their opinions as much as you can.

APPEARING AT THE TORRANCE ENVIRONMENTAL FAIR

GREENIUS
Speaking of that, what about this opportunity that you have to speak at the Torrance Environmental Fair on June 13?  You’re still going to do that, aren’t you?

em2959

CLICK ON THIS MAP TO SEE TORRANCE ENVIRONMENTAL PROBLEMS

BRAD
Well I’ll hope that they have me.  I’m an entertaining speaker.

GREENIUS
Well sure, and an experienced one and a highly topical one.  First of all, who invited you to begin with?

BRAD
Lillian Light (President of the EPN) arranged something with another person.  And it’s been kind of loosey goosey, I haven’t had many details.  The fact that she was quoted in the newspaper is just more amusing than anything else.  Whether or not it all gets arranged for me to be there remains to be seen.

GREENIUS
Well I think that the city of Torrance would be in an uncomfortable public position to rescind this.

BRAD
I hope to speak, I think I have a great speech this year.  “The Ten Jobs in the Solar Industry”

GREENIUS
Well if you’re there to talk about green jobs that’s about one of the hottest topics around these days.

BRAD
Yeah, I’m there to talk about green jobs, not to talk about ABC Solar and the City of Torrance and all that. I’m talking about the top 10 jobs, the cool things that you can do and your kids can do.

GREENIUS
And I assume you’re also there to answer people’s questions about solar locally?

BRAD
Oh, I hope that people do ask their questions, of course.

GREENIUS
I think there’s another perspective you can come from too.  Every one of these cities in the South Bay has signed onto a pledge to be a Cool City and reduce their GHG emissions as a city below 1990 levels by 2012.

So how the hell are they expecting to do that if they’re not expediting solar permits, working with residents to help them get solar instead of acting as an obstacle to them getting solar.  On a citywide basis, each one of the city’s mayors and city councils had to approve their voluntary compliance.  On top of that we’re in a state where next year we’re supposed to be generating 20% of our electricity from renewable sources and right now we’re only at 13.5%.

photo2

BRAD
Talk to them.  They already know that they’re mandated by the Solar Rights Act not to do to me what they’re doing now.  They already know that, Joe, but they’re knowingly breaking the law.  They can’t feign stupidity, they’re smart people.  They get the same letters that I do.  They read the law.  That’s what they do all day.  They don’t get to feign stupidity.  I’m the layperson, I get to feign stupidity.

It’s still fun.  City governments are entertaining.  Luckily I live in Rancho Palos Verdes and the city’s great.  I’m lucky.  That’s where my company is headquartered.  I almost opened an office in Redondo Beach but then I thought about how awful the city is to solar and thought, “Why would I spend money there?”

Courtesy of the Daily Breeze, (c)  (Brad Graverson/Staff Photographer)

Bradley Bartz atop the roof of his solar powered home. Courtesy of the Daily Breeze, (c) (Brad Graverson/Staff Photographer)

But it’s a fun business, when the customer turns on the system and the meter spins backwards the first time, the smiles, the whoops, the hollas, the cries, all of it makes the bureaucratic red tape nothing.

GREENIUS
I hope to see you in June at the Torrance Environmental Fair talking about solar.

BRAD
I’ll look forward to being there unless somebody calls me and uninvites me.

But what’s the big deal?  I’m suing the city, what’s the big deal?  I’m not asking them for money, I’m asking them to change a rule

But if somebody wants to setup a debate between me and the mayor, that would be all right.

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3 thoughts on “Solar Smackdown in Torrance – Installer Sues City on Behalf of the Sun

  1. I appreciate Brad’s commitment to solar, but in his enthusiasm he attributed some of his ideas to me. I think Bucky Fuller once said, “It’s not so important that you understand me; just so you don’t misunderstand me” but I, too, could be misquoting.

    Greenius,
    And I appreciate you weighing in Joel. One of the most exciting and positive things I learned from interviewing Brad was about you and your incredible role as a solar pioneer here in So Cal and all around the world. After checking out your web site I immediately thought two things: 1. How could I not already know about Joel Davidson and the book considered the bible of solar,“The New Solar Electric Home” and 2. I’ve got to meet Joel Davidson and learn more about what he’s up to.

  2. Seems to me the state should be able to provide a standardized permitting process for solar installation, particularly in light of AB811. But then, I also believe in Santa Claus.

  3. Wow, lots of interesting info about solar and red tape. I am the one who has been on a mission to get reasonable permit fees and processes (in fact there have been 77 cities in nothern California that have significantly lowered permit fees as a results of the PV permit fee campaign we’ve been working on since 2005)…anyway the Sierra Club, Angeles Chapter, has just completed a PV permit fee survey for all 250 municipalities in SoCal and written a detailed report with a definitive PV permit fee comparison of southern California jurisdictions with specific recommendations for solar permitting is at: http://angeles.sierraclub.org/energy/pvfeereport.asp.

    In June 2009 the Sierra Club, Angeles Chapter has sent email letters to each city or county with a PV permit fee greater than $75o for a 3 kW PV system according to the survey…a few have already lowered their fees…and about a dozen (that I know of) are reviewing PV permit fees as of July 9, 2009.

    Feel free to contact me, Kurt Newick at 408-370-9636 or KurtNewick@yahoo.com to get plugged in to our PV permit fee campaign in SoCal!

    Greenius:
    Green greetings Kurt, and thanks for checking out the blog and checking in with our readers. I know of your work well and I’ve been watching with great interest the terrific campaign you’ve been conducting to get fair and reasonable solar permit fees in Southern California. The report you issued recently was a real eye opener and I’ve been happy to see it get the attention it deserves. I’ve been looking forward to writing about it myself.

    Especially since here in my own city of Torrance there’s now a brand new controversy as a result of your report – so your timing in weighing in could not be better.

    It was reported in the Daily Breeze yesterday:
    Torrance officials said the city’s fee was less than $200, and disputed the Sierra Club’s reported $1,009.

    We’re waiting to hear back from Brad Bartz as he reviews his records, but maybe you could help settle this from your end.

    Keep up the great work and I’ll look forward to talking with you soon and writing a more in depth piece on the work you do and the insights you’ve gained from it.

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