Ask and Expert for the week of January 5th, 2015

Here is a sample of some of the submitted Ask an Expert questions for the week of January 5th, 2015:

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: I am on the board of a 60 unit condominium in Western Massachusetts.   We are trying to establish a solar policy since a number of our residents would like to install solar panels.  Do you know of any existing HOA in Massachusetts that have solar power installed.

We are trying to come up with a policy that ALL our residents can live with, whether or not they want solar.

Answer: Though we were unable to identify specific community associations in Massachusetts where solar energy systems have been installed, the fact that over 100 megawatts of residential solar capacity – enough to power over 16,000 Massachusetts homes – have been installed in the state since 2010 makes it very likely that some of these installations are occurring in association-governed communities. While we do not have any examples to share of design guidelines for solar from Massachusetts community associations, there are a few basic best practices you can observe in ensuring the guidelines you draft and adopt meet the needs of everyone in your community.

  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. Massachusetts solar access law pertaining to community associations can be found in Massachusetts General Laws ch. 184 § 23C. While this law prevents outright prohibitions on solar installations, associations are able to place certain limits on these systems, provided these rules do not “unreasonably restrict” solar development. Unfortunately, the law does not define what is considered “unreasonable”. In the few legal disputes that exist on these matters, the state courts have looked to cost increases or performance decreases to determine reasonability.
  2. Consider Waiving Design Rules that Significantly Increase Cost or Decrease Performance. Given that impacts on system cost and/or performance have typically been used to determine whether association design standards for solar are “unreasonable”, 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). Note that NC and MA have different solar access laws, so language or restrictions that work in one state may not apply in others.
  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.

For additional resources on these issues, please see A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood from The Solar Foundation and Balancing Solar Energy Use with Potential Competing Interests from the American Planning Association.

Question: What are the biggest and best batteries available to store solar

Answer: The choice of storage technology and capacity for PV (or any other application) depends on many factors (application type – rooftop/distribution/microgrid or transmission levels, cost of energy, types of service provided by storage, reliability requirements, environmental conditions, etc.). This is a very comprehensive area, and is hard to cover by one single document.

EPRI has number of publications that give detailed explanations of energy storage options for different renewable energy applications. Here are some links for your reference:

There is also the Energy Storage Handbook by Sandia that provides lots of info on energy storage options (see the link at the bottom of this page):