With environmental concerns and the cost of energy reaching an all-time high, governments, businesses, and homeowners are desperately searching for alternative, environmentally friendly, and cost-effective sources of energy.
One such source of energy, solar power, is becoming exceedingly popular. This has focused renewed attention on two laws which regulate solar power development in California: the Solar Rights Act and the Solar Shade Control Act.
The Solar Rights Act and the Solar Shade Control Act advance a State policy in favor of solar power development. However, in doing so, the Acts restrict the authority of cities and counties to regulate certain types of solar energy installations and, ironically, may require local agencies to take a proactive approach to advance non-solar forms of “green living.” As solar power becomes an increasingly common part of the community, cities and counties should be familiar with these laws and the role they will have over the installation and use of solar energy systems in the future.
THE SOLAR RIGHTS ACT
The Solar Rights Act drastically restricts local agencies’ ability to regulate the installation of solar energy systems. The Act states that a city or county may not establish impediments to the installation of solar energy systems, such as standard permit requirements, restrictions on system location, or inspection requirements. Under the Act, a local agency may only deny a permit, including building permits, if the system would cause an adverse impact upon public health or safety. Thus, cities, counties, and other local agencies have little, if any discretionary authority over the permitting of qualifying solar energy systems.
In order to determine whether a system qualifies for protection under the Act, a local agency should determine if the system meets the following requirements:
- The system meets all local health and safety standards.
- A solar energy system for heating water must be certified by the Solar Rating Certification Corporation or other comparable national organization
- A solar energy system for producing electricity must meet all applicable standards in the National Electric Code and the Public Utilities Commission regarding safety and reliability.
If these requirements are satisfied, and public health and safety impacts are absent, the Solar Rights Act effectively guarantees the right for businesses and homeowners to install solar energy systems.
Left unanswered in the Solar Rights Act is whether a city or county may impose conditions on solar energy installations. If, for example, a local agency believes a solar installation will disrupt the visual appearance of a neighborhood, may conditions be imposed which address aesthetic impacts? This issue has not been addressed by the courts, but the prudent city or county should consider imposing reasonable conditions on any permit authorizing installation of a solar energy system.
One of the most controversial applications of the Solar Rights Act is the Act’s interference with historic buildings and landmarks. Because the Act mandates approval of a solar energy system unless it would threaten public health or safety, a city or county must allow a solar energy system to be installed on a historic building or landmark unless some aspect of the installation would pose a danger to the public. Obviously, this may detract from (or destroy) the very historic character of the building or structure sought to be preserved by its historic designation. This concern is not addressed under the Solar Rights Act, which provides no exception for impacts on aesthetics, historic resources, or visual concerns.
Similar concerns have been voiced over the Act’s application to large-scale solar power projects, such as projects involving the conversion of wilderness lands into “solar farms” as a new form of energy development. If the Act applies to such projects, a local agency’s environmental review may be drastically curtailed. While courts have not yet decided whether the Solar Rights Act applies in this context, the pace of large-scale solar power development may make this issue ripe for judicial review in the coming years.
THE SOLAR SHADE CONTROL ACT
The Solar Shade Control Act restricts the planting and growing of trees which cast shade on solar panels. As amended in 2008, the Act prevents any property owner from the planting or maintaining of any tree or brush that will cast a shadow on greater than 10% of the solar collector’s absorption surface at any time between the hours of 10:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m. However, this limitation on tree growth does not apply to trees or bushes grown subject to a city or county ordinance.
Thus, while the Solar Rights Act impairs cities and counties from regulating solar energy systems, the same is not true under the Solar Shade Control Act: under the Act, a city or county may exempt itself from its requirements by enacting an ordinance providing for such exemption. The exemption may even be adopted after a dispute has arisen between a property owner and the local entity. In practice, this means that cities and counties may plant and grow trees, regardless of their impact on solar collectors.
As such, the Solar Shade Control Act empowers a city or county to adopt policies which advance the environmental and aesthetic benefits that trees provide, without having to worry about the impact the trees have on solar energy systems. Recent studies prove, for example, that placing mature trees near homes and businesses increases energy efficiency and reduces greenhouse gasses. While those same trees may ultimately disrupt solar energy systems on nearby properties, the Solar Shade Control Act allows cities and counties to advance a “trees-first” policy which favors “green conservation” over solar energy development.
The Solar Rights Act greatly impairs a local government entity from restricting the installation of solar energy systems. Despite this, the Solar Shade Control Act grants cities and counties authority to plant trees without fear of improperly shading nearby solar energy systems. As cities, counties, and their communities embrace California’s green revolution, local officials should recognize both the limitations, and the opportunities, that these Acts create.