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Green Building News

Homeowner Groups Are (Still) Battling Solar

In California, PV installers complain that hassles with homeowner associations mean application delays and homeowner frustration

Some 20% of all Californians live in communities run by homeowners associations. These homeowners associations don't always welcome the installation of residential photovoltaic systems.
Image Credit: Solar Direct Savings via Flickr

California homeowners who install solar panels on their roofs may run afoul of their homeowners association, despite state laws designed to protect them.

There are 43,000 community associations in the state, second only to Florida, The San Jose Mercury News reports, and they dole out guidance and restrictions for some 7.2 million state residents. Rules can cover anything from paint colors to lawn maintenance.

Photovoltaic (PV) installations are booming in the state, jumping by 66% from 2013 to 2014 and adding up to more than $11.7 billion in new installations last year, the newspaper said. A state law passed in 1978 and updated regularly since then restricts the power of homeowner associations (HOAs) over residential solar installations, but PV installers say that the associations still can add months to the construction process, driving up costs and frustrating homeowners.

Randy Zechman, CEO of Clean Solar in San Jose, calls it “death by 1,000 cuts.”

For example, the newspaper tells the tale of Ilam Mougy of San Jose, who got permission from his utility and the city to install solar panels on his roof. Because one of his neighbors already had an array, Mougy didn’t think he’d have much trouble with his HOA. But he did. He was ordered to remove the panels, fined $300, and directed to repair the red clay roof tiles.

The nearly 30-year-old state law specifically prohibits associations from rejecting a solar installation for aesthetic reasons, but that still appears to be happening. Bernadette Del Chiaro, the executive director of the California solar energy association, says that some HOAs don’t know about the law. Others simply ignore it.

As a result, some installers refuse to work in communities run by an HOA.

Disputes are widespread

Mougy had filed plans with the community association, but didn’t get a reply. He went ahead with the project, but in the end, both he and his neighbor had to remove their PV arrays.

Susan Hoffman, the community association manager for the Mougy’s HOA, pointed to community rules to explain that the solar issue was more complex than it appeared. The structures and their common areas are owned by the association, not individual homeowners, she explained, and it is the community that can decide what goes on the roof.

But a community-wide change of heart is not out of the question. “The association is not against solar,” Hoffman told the Mercury News. “Looking at solar for all the buildings is a reasonable approach.”

The issue is not limited to California, and it’s not really new. (GBA’s Richard Defendorf wrote about the conflict between HOAs and homeowners in 2009). Cases similar to Mougy’s are easy to find — they’ve been reported in Missouri, Georgia, Oregon, Nebraska, and Texas, and there appears to be no standardized way that HOAs deal with the issue. A 2013 report from Greentech Media said that 22 states had solar rights provisions on the books, falling into any of four categories.

Delays that add time and complexity to the permitting process ratchet up the “soft costs” of solar installations, which are helping to prop up the price of PV installations even as the cost of PV modules continues to fall. In the first half of 2012, for example, the Department of Energy estimated that hardware costs made up less than half the total installed cost of a PV system, with taxes, permitting, labor, and marketing among that factors making up the balance-of-system costs.

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