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Communities Are Becoming “SolSmart” (With Some Help From Their States)

May 23, 2018 by Alexandra Aznar and Megan Day

Two years ago, the Solar Technical Assistance Team (STAT) profiled the launch of our sister program, SolSmart, a U.S. Department of Energy Solar Energy Technologies Office designation and technical assistance program that aims to help local governments reduce solar soft costs (i.e., non-hardware costs) and become solar leaders. Since then, over 200 communities nationwide have become designated “SolSmart” (Figure 1). Designated communities have improved their policies and practices in areas such as planning, zoning, permitting, inspection, and community engagement that influence local solar market development. Some have also benefited from SolSmart Advisors—experienced, temporary staff dedicated to helping communities become more solar friendly (Figure 2).

Figure 1. SolSmart Designated Communities

Map of SolSmart designated communities
Source: solsmart.org

Figure 2. SolSmart Advisors

Photo of SolSmart advisors
Credit: The Solar Foundation

As communities examine their options to reduce solar soft costs through the SolSmart program, the interplay of local and state policy rises to the forefront. The degree to which local jurisdictions have authority over solar energy installations varies from state to state and influences the path communities take toward SolSmart designation.

Local governments have jurisdictional control over several areas that affect solar development (most notably zoning, permitting, and inspections) and thus have the power to reduce the soft costs associated with solar deployment. Nonetheless, as local governments work toward adopting solar best practices, they may find that state law supersedes local control in some areas. A few examples of these local-state interactions are highlighted below.

Solar in Building Codes

Most local jurisdictions require a building permit and associated inspections for solar installations, yet building standards related to photovoltaics (PV) may be established at the state level.[1] Various codes and associated vintages (i.e., date, typically a year) may be adopted at either the state or local level, and different codes regulate solar energy installations in a variety of ways (see Table 1). There is variance from locality to locality and state to state in terms of specific code adoption, as demonstrated in Figure 3.

Table 1. Code Type and Associated Areas of Regulation

Code

PV related area

National Electric Code

Electrical safety, wiring

International Building Code, Residential Building Code

Wind resistance and roof live loads (structural), UL listing and labeling

International Fire Code

Fire safety, roof access and pathways, labeling

International Energy Conservation Code (IECC)

Solar-ready construction

International Green Construction Code

Minimum on-site renewable energy generation requirement, focused on commercial buildings

States like California have permitting and inspection guidance for enforcement of state building codes that specifically address various aspects of PV installations. Local communities can adopt laws that modify California state building codes, but only in limited circumstances. Other states also require municipalities to petition the state for permission to go “above and beyond” the building code adopted at the state level. This kind of requirement can be a potential source of conflict between state and local governments.

Figure 3. Municipal Adoption Rates of IECC Building Energy Codes by State[2]

Map of municipal adoption rates of IECC building energy codes by state
Source: Cook et al., 2016

Providing Guidance on PV and Fire Safety

Local fire departments may be unsure how to access a building with rooftop solar or how to address a fire that involves solar without proper guidance and training.[3] Oregon is an example of a state that has stepped in to provide guidance to local communities on solar and fire safety, particularly with recommendations on setbacks from roof ridges and edges so that firefighters have access to a building in the event of a fire (see 2010 Oregon Solar Installation Specialty Code and Commentary) (Figure 4).

Figure 4. Example of Pathways to Access Solar Panels for Firefighters and First Responders

Image depicting pathways to access solar panels for firefighters and first responders
Source: 2010 Oregon Solar Installation Specialty Code and Commentary

Ensuring Solar Access

States have also set policies to ensure residents’ ability to access sufficient sunlight for a PV system’s operation via adoption of solar access laws. Most of the 40 existing state solar access laws are voluntary, according to DSIRE, but California, Iowa, Massachusetts, and New Mexico have taken specific, unique (and often mandatory) approaches to solar access.

Prohibiting Restrictive Covenants

Some homeowners’ associations (HOAs) place restrictive requirements on PV through their covenants and architectural guidelines that can make “going solar” more expensive or outright impossible for residents.[4] However, states like California (see CA Civil Code Section 714) prohibit HOAs from preventing solar installations (reasonable restrictions are allowed), deeming restrictive covenants “void and unenforceable.” California also disallows municipalities from preventing solar based on aesthetic objections (see CA Civil Government Code Section 65850.5). Like California, state statutes in Connecticut and Maine prohibit municipalities and HOAs from restricting solar, while outlining specific exceptions for historic districts.  

These examples showcase the interplay between state and local solar policy. STAT has recently addressed this exact issue by supporting the office of a U.S. Senator from New Mexico in preparing guidance and resources for New Mexico municipalities considering solar development.

To access free technical assistance and ensure your community is open for solar business, contact SolSmart at solsmart.org. States can explore no-cost technical assistance through the STAT program.

 

[1] The ICC provides a list of the various codes and code vintages adopted at the state level: https://www.iccsafe.org/wp-content/uploads/Master-I-Code-Adoption-Chart-latest.pdf

[2] In cases where a state has zero municipal adoptions and an existing statewide energy code, it may be the case that the jurisdiction’s authority is subject to Dillon’s Rule, where local authority for adopting a more stringent building code than the state code is limited. Possible examples may include Connecticut, Minnesota, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin.

[3] https://www.seia.org/initiatives/fire-safety-solar  

[4] http://solarize-nc.org/wp-content/uploads/NCSEA-HOA-Guide_Final.pdf

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