California Law Shines on New Solar Energy Projects

Just in time for the solar industry’s major conference in San Francisco this week, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a bill that will make it less difficult for homes and businesses hoping to install solar energy systems in towns that tend to find the projects aesthetically unfit for their tastes.

Schwarzenegger signed AB 2473 into law, which is a strengthened Solar Rights Act sponsored by California State Assemblywoman Lois Wolk in the 8th Assembly District. The key improvements made to the new Solar Rights Act minimize aesthetic solar restrictions to changes that would cost the developer no more than US$2,000. The restrictions imposed also cannot reduce the overall system’s efficiency by any more than 20 percent. If either threshold is reached, local authorities are no longer able to restrict the project. In addition, the act limits building officials’ review of solar installations only to those items that relate to specific health and safety requirements of local, state and federal law. Local authorities may still have some room to impose restrictions, but much less than before. “In essence, we need to remove the arbitrary imposition of unreasonable obstacles to a homeowner or business owner’s attempts to save money and reduce our dependence on fossil fuel,” Wolk said. The political impetus for a strengthened Solar Rights Act came from a number of situations where town administrators objected to solar energy systems on homes or business, largely for aesthetic reasons. “We see it all the time, not just Los Gatos, but many other communities,” said Barry Cinnamon, president of Akeena Solar, a Los Gatos-based solar photovoltaic (PV) installation company. Cinnamon’s company became a poster child for this phenomenon when they found themselves embroiled in the same situation two years ago. The company applied for a building permit for a solar PV system on the roof of its Los Gatos facility in autumn 2002. The installation was completed in December 2002 but the town refused to approve the building permit because three of the solar panels were visible from the street. The company appealed the decision to the town’s Planning Commission in May 2003 and to the Town Council in August 2003; both appeals were denied. Many homes and businesses have faced similar hurdles, and many have caved-in to town wishes. Instead, Akeena Solar filed suit against the town. In its suit, the company argued that the Town Council’s decision violated an earlier version of the California Solar Rights Act, which was most recently amended by Governor Davis on September 11, 2003. Cinnamon knew it could be a long battle, but he felt it was one worth fighting for. “It’s extraordinarily expensive to fight,” Cinnamon said. “We put on a $12,000 system, and spent $40,000 in legal fees. But to me, it was the principle. The town was just against solar panels being visible.” Amidst the squabble, along came the strengthened Solar Rights Act in September, just in time to turn the tide in favor of Akeena and solar fans throughout California. Cinnamon said the town’s position will be rendered irrelevant once the law takes effect in January of 2005. The company has since settled with Los Gatos, agreeing to pull three solar PV panels off the roof for the remainder of the year. “Who would have thought that it would be much quicker to change a California law than to go through the municipal legal process?” Cinnamon said. “And when (the bill) goes into effect in January of 2005, we and every other solar customer in the state of California will be able to benefit from the sun.” While the law certainly made Akeena’s day a lot brighter, it will have far reaching effects for any home or business in California. This would be particularly important if the Schwarzenegger administration manages to pass a comprehensive solar bill, which was a campaign promise that almost became reality during the last legislative session. Through Schwarzenegger’s prompting, the State’s Environmental Protection Agency announced its Million Solar Homes initiative in August, 2004. Ultimately, the measure failed to satisfy everyone’s wishes. Solar thermal advocates would have been left out entirely, a rebate funding gap would have constrained project sizes and legislators simply didn’t want consumers to pay for the plan. However, it is very likely to come up again in some form, and local authorities will be less of an obstacle to implementing it. “The Governor’s plans to encourage solar would be dead in the water if municipalities continue to have free reign to restrict solar installations,” Cinnamon said. As is often the case, California issues, and California laws are often years ahead of other states. States like New Jersey and Pennsylvania, which have strong incentives for solar PV systems, might soon face the same dilemma. The rebates are even higher in New Jersey than California but the program is so new that the rebate checks have yet to come through, according to Cinnamon, whose company also operates an East Coast division. “This issue hasn’t even come up out there,” Cinnamon said. “But the market there is five years behind California, so they will likely need to have a similar state law.”
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