Excerpts from “Ask an Expert” – April and May 2015

Here is a sample of some of the submitted Ask an Expert questions from April – May 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: Solar advocates are trying to help citizens of North Richland Hills, Texas overcome their elected officials’ determination that solar panels are ugly and should not be seen on residential rooftops. Any suggestions to help keep them from continuing to erect unnecessary barriers?

Answer: The aesthetic concerns presented by decision makers in your community follow a familiar pattern of focusing primarily on the worst-case scenario when it comes to system design and appearance (as evidenced in the Solar Ordinance Facts document). In these cases, we have found it useful to present examples of current industry installation practices. This presentation, developed by a local speaker at a recent Solar Powering Your Community workshop provided by our team, provides visual examples of what is commonly understood to be the rule – rather than the exception – when it comes to aesthetics for rooftop solar installations. Though created with a homeowner’s association (HOA) audience in mind, the examples and some of the principles covered may be helpful in your case. Concerns about systems installed at “odd angles” also likely stem from an outdated understanding of installation practices. These days, solar photovoltaic (PV) systems on pitched roofs are nearly always done with the modules parallel to the roof plane. Installation firms now recognize both the aesthetic concerns of installing pitched-roof PV systems at angles other than that of the roof’s and – perhaps more importantly from standpoint of the solar company and customer – that the additional materials and installation costs required to install a system at an “odd angle” seldom make up for the small boost in energy production that might be achieved with such a system design. In addition, there are apparently some concerns about the amount of clearance that should be allowed between a PV system and the roof – with a maximum clearance of 6 inches included in the ordinance. Though systems mounted fewer than 6 inches from a roof are subjected to higher temperatures – resulting in decreased system output – the standard recommendation for these systems is that they are only installed with a 4 inch separation. For reference, both of these points – on systems at “odd angles” and clearance recommendations – were taken from the Solar Electric Handbook: Photovoltaic Fundamentals and Applications, a leading resource for training new solar PV installers.

In addition to the technical concerns, there seems to be some concern that HOAs lack the ability to enforce certain design requirements, and thus the local government should step in. In fact, many of the design elements restricted by the ordinance may be regulated by HOAs under the Texas solar rights law (HB 362 – 2011; now Section 202.010 of the Texas Property Code). For example, both systems that are placed higher than the roofline or peaks (§202.010(d)(5)(A)) and are not installed parallel with the roof plane ((§202.010(d)(5)(C)) – as well as those with other design features – may be regulated by HOAs.

In short, we feel that an approach centered on fact-based educational outreach designed to dispel misconceptions about solar energy and PV system installation practices would be effective. It is important to use this as a starting point for creating a dialogue with decision makers, and not see this effort as an end in itself. The aesthetic concerns implicit in the requirements of the current ordinance may be overcome through this educational approach, but there may be other issues that need to be addressed. It is important to recognize that there may in fact be other legitimate concerns regarding solar installations and to remain open to finding solutions that truly balance benefits to homeowners with potential community impacts.

Question: It seems many jurisdictions in CO require an installer to hold a variety of licenses (e.g., business license, contract license, community-specific license, and so on). What are some of the best practices around minimizing cost and time associated with the number of licenses required?

Answer: According to IREC and Vote Solar’s Best Practices for Residential Solar Permitting, (http://www.irecusa.org/solar-permitting-best-practices/), the national best practice is not to require community-specific licenses. If a locality does choose to require a license, the recommendation is that the community accept NABCEP PV installer and solar thermal certification, or the already existing state licensing requirements, if applicable.

Question: Cities and/or states may have a permit fee cap or a flat fee, however, such fee structures do not affect use taxes (which represents ~4.5% of the valuation in Boulder County Region). What could policymakers and local government officials do to address this issue?

Answer: Since use taxes are typically set by the state, local government officials have limited recourse in these situations, although they could attempt to influence state tax policy to have such taxes lowered or eliminated. Ultimately, the best practice (http://www.irecusa.org/solar-permitting-best-practices/) is for local governments to recover the costs of processing permits through flat permit fees. Lowering or eliminating local solar permit fees in an attempt to compensate for state-mandated tax costs can have the unintended consequence of depriving local governments of the funds necessary to process permits, thereby slowing or stalling the process and creating a bottleneck for solar installations. Instead, local officials wishing to encourage solar in their communities should focus on ensuring that their solar permitting processes are as simple and user-friendly as possible, in line with best practices. This will minimize the costs associated with their processes–due not just to permit fees, but also the time and resources required for the solar applicant to navigate and comply with the process–while still ensuring any safety or other local standards are met.