Solar panels and homeowners’ associations don’t always agree. Even in California, one of the states with protection for solar rights, lawsuits occur that decide against the homeowner. And as the number of PV installations in California rises to meet the state’s renewable energy goals, this homeowners’ association issue may influence the course of the nation.
Not all states have laws in place to restrict HOAs from blocking or otherwise inhibiting folks who want to install solar. Basically, the laws are written to prevent an association from saying ‘no’ on the grounds of appearance because the overall benefit is too great. California has a law in place called the Solar Rights Act (1978), which protects individuals’ rights to obtain solar. Hawaii, Florida, California and Arizona have laws in place restricting HOAs (and in extreme cases, city planning departments), but those states have not set a precedent as to how those cases will be handled yet. There is currently a law at the federal level that would restrict HOAs nationwide, but whether that language will remain in the bill has yet to be seen.
For instance, Marc Weinberg of Camarillo, CA, sued his homeowners’ association for saying he couldn’t install solar panels on his roof. Weinberg won, plus tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees. Since then, three other solar minded homes in the neighborhood have installed the panels. But another California homeowner was told to move the panels, costing him an additional $8,000 to construct a platform and perform the work. In Minnesota, a man was denied solar panels because they were “too obtrusive.” Raymond Walker, government spokesperson for Standard Renewable Energy of Houston, said that the company loses as much as $2 million in jobs per year because of blocked installations.
Homeowners’ associations do have rights as to what they allow in their neighborhood, from how trash is placed to house paint colors, etc. They restrict what they think is ugly. However, in the case of solar panels, that may not be legal for very much longer. An Arizona court recently decided just that. But rulings do go in favor of the associations, too. In Marc Weinberg’s case, moving the panels would have cost him 40% in efficiency, and so he won the case. In other cases, the panels must be moved to look less conspicuous. In New Jersey, a man was forced to remove 28 installed panels and has been fighting for his right to have them ever since.
Delays are often part of the process. Asking for more information, wanting black rather than blue panels, and those types of things are common from an unreceptive homeowner’s association. The issue is widespread and some nationwide HOAs are starting to look into striking the happy medium between function and aesthetics.
If that accord can be reached, everyone wins. The individual who installs the panels gets a single cost for a vast part of their system’s lifespan, the utility gets less pressure on the peak grid, and the lowered pressure (assuming enough go solar) actually lowers everyone’s peak rates. That’s not mentioning all the good things that it does for the earth. At the same time, it’s good to have more than a green ethics approach if you’re forced to take the matter to court.
But that won’t make HOAs love solar panels any sooner. That will take time because it takes time to change. Education will be a big factor in that transformation and new technologies that make solar more aesthetically valuable will also help. Once it isn’t ugly anymore (if it is now), the complaints will stop and we’ll move on to a bigger and brighter future.