Homes with solar energy units are increasingly common in Baltimore's suburbs, but retail installers say they're all but walking away from Baltimore County as a market because bureaucracy and regulations make it difficult to do business there.
Installers say the county has a too-strict interpretation of fire codes and an inconsistent inspection process, meaning projects take longer to get approved and aren't as effective because they can't include as many rooftop panels as in surrounding counties.
"It's far more difficult than any other jurisdiction," said Ken Stadlin, president of Kenergy Solar, a Washington-based company that has been selling solar energy systems in Maryland for five years.
Solar panels to power hot water heaters and electrical systems have grown in popularity in recent years with a drop in prices and a growing number of companies offering leasing and financing options for homeowners. Nationally, prices have fallen 15 percent over the past year, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association, a trade group for solar companies.
The association estimates Maryland homes, businesses and utilities have installed systems capable of producing a combined 186 megawatts of solar energy, which ranks the state 14th in the country.
There's also a governmental push to install more solar panels — policy adopted by the state over the past decade requires that 2 percent of the state's electricity be generated by solar panels by 2020.
"We're starting to turn the corner to mainstream," said Stadlin, a board member for the solar energy association's regional chapter. "People are seeing their neighbors have solar and seeing good results for it. It's not just a crazy idea."
But solar company officials say Baltimore County is missing out on that explosive growth. They say the permitting process in the county can take twice as long as in other localities, and they've abandoned marketing efforts or tacked on extra charges to customers to compensate for the extra effort.
Baltimore County has granted permits for fewer solar projects than other surrounding suburban counties. In 2014, county officials issued permits for 279 solar hot water and solar electricity projects from Jan. 1 through early December.
Smaller counties permitted more projects during the same period, according data provided by their inspection departments: 936 in Anne Arundel County, 584 in Howard County and 494 in Harford County.
Carroll County, which has about one-fifth of the population of Baltimore County, permitted only slightly fewer projects than its larger neighbor — 238.
In Baltimore, several dozen solar projects are granted permits each year. Solar installers attribute the lower number in the city to logistical issues in historic districts and on flat-roofed rowhomes.
Arnold Jablon, director of the Department of Permits, Approvals and Inspections for Baltimore County, defends its permitting and inspections process. In a statement, he said county rules are intended to promote safety, especially for firefighters who may need to climb on rooftops when putting out fires.
One company, SolarCity said it has tried to work with Baltimore County officials on the fire code and inspections issues, but said county officials have not been receptive.
"What we've seen is a challenge in terms of developing any communication toward amending this," said Lee Keshishian, SolarCity's regional vice president. "The industry is growing, the market is changing and it seems the processes in Baltimore County are probably antiquated or not keeping up with the speed of the growth of the industry."
Jablon said about half of 2014's solar permits in Baltimore County were issued to SolarCity.
He wrote that his staff has tried to explain its policies to SolarCity, giving "clear, consistent and thorough explanations to their questions and concerns."
The biggest sticking point between the county and the solar companies is rules for firefighters' access to rooftops.
Counties are allowed to set their own requirements for firefighter access. Commercial rooftops statewide must have a 4-foot pathway around solar panels, but there's not a minimum standard required by the state for residential roofs, said Bruce D. Bouch, deputy state fire marshal.
Some counties have determined that because only one side of a residential roof is typically covered in solar panels, firefighters can use the other side for venting heat, smoke and gas from a fire — so they have no setback requirements.
Baltimore County has more strict rules, requiring 3 feet of working room for firefighters around panels on residential rooftops. Solar companies said the county's requirement means that homeowners can put fewer panels on their roofs, making the systems less financially beneficial to homeowners.
"Montgomery County exempts one- and two-family homes from roof setback requirements. I believe several other Maryland counties also do this. Unfortunately, for SolarCity, the Baltimore County law does not," Jablon wrote in his statement.
"Baltimore County customers are getting less solar panels installed compared to other counties," said Geoff Mirkin, vice president of Elkridge-based Solar Energy World and another board member of the solar energy association's regional chapter. He said having different rules in Baltimore County creates confusion and "muddies the water."
Solar company officials also have complained that the inspection process is inconsistent and slow in Baltimore County compared to other counties. County officials acknowledge that inspections are generally performed four days a week — because most inspectors have accrued paid time off that they use on Fridays.
As for the complaints about inconsistency, Baltimore County's chief code administrator Donald E. Brand wrote to SolarCity in November that the county's inspectors are "adequately and uniformly trained." Problems arise only because each solar company has its own systems and practices, he wrote.
"There will always be inconsistencies in the enforcement field as long as there are inconsistencies in the installation field," Brand wrote. "No two jobs are identical so questions will always arise."
Rick Peters, president and co-owner of Solar Energy Services in Millersville, said other counties have been more willing to find workable solutions to industry concerns, especially on the issue of setbacks for firefighters.
SolarCity, a national company with an office in Hunt Valley, questioned whether it makes sense to grow its operations in Baltimore County.
"We don't have to stay there. We can look at other places to do business and have a warehouse," said Brendan Reed, SolarCity's deputy director of policy and electrical markets.
Peters, of Solar Energy Services, said he doesn't seek new customers in Baltimore County, "just because of the lower profitability, the higher cost of doing business." And Stadlin said Kenergy Solar charges more for systems in the county because of the added time and effort to go through the permit process.
"It's just so much easier to build a system in Anne Arundel or Howard than in Baltimore [County]," Stadlin said.
Given the demand, Keshishian said his company should be doing much more business in Baltimore County and is disappointed that's not the case.
"Baltimore County should be a very, very good county for us," he said.