Ask and Expert for the week of December 1st, 2014

Here is a sample of some of the submitted Ask an Expert questions for the week of November 10th, 2014:

Please keep in mind when reviewing these responses that it is not the role of the Solar Outreach Partnership to provide legal or tax advice, and nothing herein should be construed as such. These responses are provided for educational purposes only, and should be verified by experienced legal counsel before any decisions or actions are taken.

Question: Is there any data on annual cost of damage sustained by solar installations due to natural phenomena (particularly wind)?

Answer: Thank you for contacting the Solar Outreach Partnership via the U.S. Department of Energy’s “Ask an Expert” web portal with your question on the value of damage sustained by solar energy systems annually due to natural events. Unfortunately, we do not know of a comprehensive source for this data, which has historically been difficult to collect due to the large number of privately owned systems. We have seen anecdotally however that solar energy systems are typically very robust in this regard, owing to international and local building codes, insurance requirements, and industry certification standards. Recent severe weather events provide several examples. In the aftermath of Hurricane Irene, there were no reports of significant damage to solar energy systems. Similarly, after Hurricane Sandy, a leading renewable energy insurer noted almost no damage claims for solar installations in New York and New Jersey. Of the systems that were damaged during the storm, the majority suffered only minor damage. The greatest impacts from the storm included damage to approximately 5% of panels on a large 1.1 million square foot rooftop array in Gloucester City, NJ and flood damage to a 3.2 megawatt solar project in Linden, NJ.

Question: The US Army has been tasked with adding solar fields as additional/alternate energy sources. Some of the locations suggested do not have an economic alternate use (capped landfills for example).  Is there a list of active solar leases available?  Or a location list so that the land owners could be contacted?

Answer: Thanks for contacting the SunShot Solar Outreach Partnership through the U.S. Department of Energy’s “Ask an Expert” portal for your question regarding existing solar leases. Unfortunately, we do not know of a single comprehensive list of such sites with lease details. If you are interested in learning more about leasing land for solar, you may wish to contact individuals or organizations party to similar projects involving site leases. Some examples of these projects include:

After the closure and capping of this municipal landfill, the City entered into a site lease agreement with the newly-formed Materials Innovation and Recycling Authority (MIRA) to install a 1 megawatt solar facility.

In early 2012, both towns entered into lease agreements with a solar developer interested in installing solar energy systems designed to export electricity to local utilities. A representative from one town notes the lease agreement will bring in $33,000 in revenue annually.

In May of 2014, the Westfield City Council granted approval for a local solar developer to install a solar farm atop the former Twiss Street landfill. The deal is expected to bring in $7,500 per year in tax revenue to the City, along with another $75,000 in annual lease payments.

A study conducted by the Town Sustainability Committee to enter into an agreement with a solar developer to build a 500 kW solar array on a local landfill estimated lease payments at $25,000/MW. This $12,500 in annual lease revenue would total a quarter of a million dollars over the life of the proposed lease.

In leasing 7.5 acres of its old Beech Street landfill for the installation of a 2.1 MW solar facility, the Town of Marshfield will receive $50,000 in annual lease payments for each of the 20 years of the agreement.

In addition, there are a few resources that you may find helpful, though they do not exclusively deal with landfill or brownfield projects involving leases. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, through the RE-Powering America’s Lands Initiative, have developed a guide on Best Practices for Siting Solar Photovoltaics on Municipal Solid Waste Landfills, the first Appendix of which contains a list of Solar PV projects installed on landfills through 2012. Through the Initiative, EPA and NREL have also prepared a set of feasibility studies for renewable energy projects on Superfund, brownfield, and former landfill or mining sites.

Question: I just moved to a new neighborhood which has an HOA and architectural guidelines that generally prohibits installation of solar panels “on the front of residences or on the slopes of roofs facing the street or facing common areas if the solar collectors can be seen by a person on the ground.”

That basically prohibits almost half of my neighbors from installing solar panels if they want to choose to make an investment in their home that increases the value of their home, lowers their energy costs, lowers their carbon footprint, and maintains good aesthetics in a beautiful neighborhood, even on the front roof slope of a home.

Do you know of any example or model HOA architectural guidelines that are more solar friendly that you can share with me?  My HOA is about to review and amend its architectural guidelines and I want to suggest some good changes.  I’d like to use some good examples instead of reinventing the wheel.

Answer: Thanks for contacting us with your question regarding solar-friendly HOA guidelines. Because some states have different laws governing an HOA’s ability to restrict the use of solar energy, it would be difficult for us to provide a good set of model guidelines without knowing what state you are in. However, through our experience in working on these issues, we have identified a number of best practices in crafting HOA solar guidelines that you may find helpful. Please note that it is not the role of our team to provide legal advice, and nothing in this email should be construed as such. The information provided herein is for educational purposes only.

  1.       Understand Your State’s Solar Access Laws.  These laws can take the form of either solar rights provisions (designed to protect the rights of property owners to install solar) or solar easements (which increase the likelihood that properties will receive sunlight and reduce the risk that a system will be shaded after installation), or both. Currently, 40 states have adopted some form of solar access law, with about two dozen of these limiting an HOA’s ability to prohibit or restrict solar energy installations. You can find out more about your state’s own solar access laws by visiting A solid understanding of what an HOA can control will give you an idea of which issues may need to be addressed before you get the guidelines you desire.
  2.       Consider Waiving Design Rules that Significantly Increase Cost or Decrease Performance. Some states have set quantifiable limits on the impacts HOA restrictions can have on a solar installations before these limitations are considered “unreasonable”, and thus not allowed under the state solar access law. These limits are commonly defined by a certain level of increased installation cost or decreased system performance, or both. Some states have not set quantified limits, but instead prohibit “significant” cost increases/performance decreases. States that do not have either a quantified or “significant” limitation on HOA restrictions almost invariably prohibit “unreasonable” restrictions that are not defined by law. In the few legal disputes that exist on these matters, the courts have looked to cost increases or performance decreases to determine reasonability. Given this, it would be prudent to waive design restrictions that significantly increase cost or decrease performance. You can find an example of this language the model design guidelines we developed for North Carolina associations (see the final paragraph on the second page).
  3.       Provide Clear, Unambiguous Design Guidelines. Too often, we see design guidelines for solar that simply state something to the effect of “solar energy systems must receive architectural review committee approval before installation” without providing any guidance on which factors will be considered in approving or denying an application. This lack of transparency can create a lot of hassle for both the homeowner and the committee, as the homeowner may wish to appeal a decision or reapply for a new system, when these subsequent steps may have been avoided by simply describing the system design elements that will be considered in the HOA guidelines.
  4.       Provide a List of All Required Documents. Related to the recommendation above, providing a list of all documents that will be required for system review (e.g., application form, site plans and system drawings, photos or literature on system components, etc.) will help reduce requests for additional information and speed along the decision making process.
  5.       Post Rules and Requirements Online. All homeowners should have easy access to these guidelines so that no one is confused or in the dark about these requirements.
  6.       Allow Exceptions from Tree Removal Rules for Solar. A common motivation for HOA restrictions on solar is to promote tree preservation and growth. However, there does not necessarily have to be conflict between these two legitimate interests, provided a handful of best practices are observed. For existing developments, pruning should be considered before removal. If removal is necessary, guidelines could require or encourage the replacement of removed trees, and the HOA itself can track tree removal and replacement to ensure there is no net loss of trees in the community. In general, the guiding principle should be planting the right tree in the right place for the right reason. When selecting the “right tree”, consider how tall the tree is likely to grow and what its eventual height may mean for system shading. The “right place” can mean planting a tree on the west side of a home to provide shade in the summer, but avoiding planting trees to the south where solar access is needed. And finally, make sure you have a good understanding of the reason for the trees. For example, if the community is primarily concerned about aesthetics, consider whether these goals can be met with a shorter tree or shrub that will be less likely to affect the solar installation.