Friday, October 10, 2014

Overcoming Potential Regulatory (local) Barriers for Residential Solar Installations

So, YOU want to put Solar PV on YOUR property?  There may be some potential barriers related to local regulations of which you should be aware. And hopefully with this blog posting, we can provide some ways to help you overcome them if they get in your way.

Deployment of residential solar panels is still a relatively new phenomenon.  Therefore it is normal for a few people to question their aesthetics. (As solar advocates, this may seem hard to believe... but does sometimes happen...) However, aesthetics is a very subjective topic and as solar panels become a more normal occurrence, the aesthetic “concerns” will fade.  Remember when many neighborhoods required wood shingle roofs because it was thought that composition shingles were not aesthetically pleasing?  That didn’t last very long.

By the end of 2013, there were 470,000 total solar PV installations across the US. 155,000 of those installations were completed in 2013. Thus, the GROWTH has been recent and LARGE! The numbers in Texas are still relatively small, but the numbers are not insignificant. By the end of 2014, Texas will be nearing 10,000 total installations.

So let's identify and discuss four potential barriers and how to overcome them.  They include: 
  1. HOA requirements and Texas HOA legislation (important to know and understand even if you don't live in a neighborhood with an HOA)
  2. The HOA "street facing" restriction and how to overcome it
  3. Recent city ordinance activity across North Texas and how to make sure it doesn't become a barrier
  4. The one big HOA legislation loophole and how it may effect homeowners - in the short term and longer term
1. HOA requirements and Texas HOA legislation

  • Texas HB-362, passed in the 82nd Legislative session (2011), limits HOAs and POAs from restricting solar devices outright. To comply with this law, homeowners that live in neighborhoods with HOAs must still follow the normal procedures for seeking improvements, including a written request or application to an appointed Architecture Review Committee or similar council.
  • For additional information, please see our "Useful Links" page and scroll down to section titled "Policy & References related to HOAs (Home Owners Associations)".
  • Even if you don't live in a neighborhood with an HOA, it is important to understand the basics of the legislation because similar restrictions might appear in local city/county ordinances.  (Learn more in item 3 below.)
  • Also, there is still one particularly problematic loophole in the existing Texas HOA legislation that is a BIG problem in new, and not so new, neighborhood developments.  See item 4 to learn more!

2. Texas HOA legislation "street facing" clause and how to overcome it

  • Some people might not install solar panels because their HOA does not "seem to" allow street facing panels. Since south facing panels provide the maximum annual production, it is important to install panels on the south facing roof even if it is street facing.  To learn how to overcome this "apparent" but "not a show stopper" restriction, see our blog posting - "Texas HOAs generally CANNOT block south street facing solar installations"

3. Recent city ordinance activity across North Texas and how to make sure it doesn't become a barrier

  • Recently, the North Texas Renewable Energy Group has found that some city jurisdictions across North Texas have been researching and drafting solar ordinances for their communities. While this can be an opportunity to increase awareness and promote the use of solar energy, it can also sometimes be misapplied to create overly restrictive ordinances that actually derail the growth of solar. In these overly restrictive examples, it is usually the result of a misguided attempt to protect community "aesthetics" as was previously mentioned.
  • You are encouraged to get involved with your local city or community and make sure that they have solar-friendly ordinances and processes. Below is a suggested simplified list of uniformly enforceable solar energy device related ordinances with a strong emphasis on safety.
    • Solar energy devices are allowed. Along with energy efficiency investments, residents are encouraged to use available renewable clean energy technology to reduce their electric load on the electric utility grid. 
    • Installed solar energy devices must meet all applicable safety requirements including electrical, fire, and building codes.  Simplified city permits are required, and the permitting process is in place to insure that applicable safety codes are met. 
    • Solar energy devices that are to be interconnected to the electric grid must meet applicable interconnection requirements and approvals of the local electric utility.
  • Ordinance restrictions for solar energy devices beyond those related to safety will be difficult to uniformly apply and enforce.  For example, most jurisdictions have found that trying to enforce “no street visibility” for solar panels for aesthetic reasons can be easily challenged.  For example, how can a jurisdiction allow some homeowners the consumer choice to install solar panels because their ideal roof surface for solar panels is not visible from the street, while prohibiting another homeowner from the consumer choice of installing solar panels because their idea roof surface is “visible from the street”.  Similarly, if aesthetics is such a significant factor, then why would it be acceptable for someone to have to tolerate solar panels if they lived behind someone with solar panels on the rear of their house, but not be acceptable if they lived across the street from someone that had solar panels installed on the front of their house.
  • If your city or jurisdiction does have some type of "street facing" restrictions, you can submit a request to your city's Board of Adjustment or Variance.  Using the same information that you would use to show adverse solar production for an HOA, in most cases the board will grant you a waiver to install.  (If they don't, Plano Solar Advocates would be interested to help.)  It would also be a good idea to request the city revise their ordinance to remove street facing restrictions so that citizens and the city or not required to go through the extra time and expense of going through a variance process.

4. The one big HOA legislation loophole and how it may effect homeowners - in the short term and longer term

  • As was mentioned in item 1 above, there is one particularly problematic loophole in the existing Texas HOA legislation that is a BIG problem in new neighborhood developments. The loophole indicates that during the development period, the developer may prohibit or restrict a property owner from installing a solar energy device.
  • The good news is that some residential developers allow solar installations during the "development period". The BAD news is that many DO NOT.  And since this "development period" can last a few years, and even extend for decades if the developer is adding new additions, this can be a very big barrier to the expansion of residential solar and to net zero energy homes.
  • We need everyone's help to get involved and help change/eliminate this loophole. To learn more see "Energy Star Homebuilders Block Installation of Solar PV in Plano Neighborhood".
  • To learn about a way to spread the word on this barrier, see "Neighborhood Opportunities"
  • GOOD NEWS UPDATE 5/23/2015: Due to 2015 state legislation SB-1626, this loophole by has been reduced to only apply for developments with fewer than 51 planned residential units (effective 9/1/2015).

If you know of any other local regulatory barriers, please let us know and provide comments and feedback to this posting.

Thanks and Shine On!
Plano Solar Advocate (LH)

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