Photo used with permission under a Creative Commons license with Flickr user Michael Mazengarb.
Photo used with permission under a Creative Commons license with Flickr user Michael Mazengarb.

As the number of projects including sustainable features such as solar panel or photovoltaic (PV) arrays, continues to grow, it’s important to stay current with legislation and regulations that may prevent or help support such initiatives. As the architecture-design process begins, architects should consider allowances for changes in the types of solar PV panels utilized or placement of the PVs due to city-specific entitlements.

There are many state-specific laws and a few federal laws that deal with solar projects. Architects and designers should contact their local permitting agency’s building and permit departments to ensure that they are up to date on legislation that may affect a specific project. They should also consult with an experienced solar-rights attorney.

Laws in California are a good example of how legislation can impact solar array design. Two of the most notable laws that architects working in the Golden State should be familiar with are the Solar Rights Act and the Solar Shade Control Act. These two acts, which apply to both residential and commercial projects, are powerful tools that architects can use when planning to install or incorporate solar panels on new or existing properties.

Solar Rights Act

The Solar Rights Act empowers architects with the right to incorporate solar-energy systems into projects by barring cities, counties, and local governments from obstructing the installation and use of these systems. Once projects are in the development stage, the act also streamlines the permitting process.

Architects working on projects in California understand that they can incorporate and install solar-energy systems into a project as long as there will not be an adverse affect upon public health or safety. For example, our law firm, Alvarez-Glasman & Colvin, once worked on a project located on a hillside area in Los Angeles that was designated as a “high fire-danger” zone. The city claimed that this designation prohibited issuing permits for solar installations because the equipment could increase the danger of fires and because the panels would make it harder for emergency personnel to respond to problems. If neighboring buildings, project opponents, or permitting agencies allege adverse effects, then architects who understand how solar rights work are at an advantage because they can challenge such allegations.

In order to take advantage of the right to install PV panels, architects must present plans to the permitting agency that demonstrates that the proposed solar system meets all local and commercial health and safety standards; and that the system meets applicable standards for safety and reliability during the production of technology by the National Electric Code and Public Utilities. Additionally, if the system provides for solar water heating, it must receive a heating-water certification from the Solar Rating Certification Corp. or another comparable national organization.

If these criteria are satisfied, the permitting agency will have a ministerial duty to approve the solar system, enabling an architect to represent to his client that solar panels can be installed as part of the project as a matter of right. Doing so offers important incentives to streamline the permitting process and avoid bureaucratic red tape.

Additionally, the Solar Rights Act can also limit the affect of other private land-use restrictions, such as easements or private deed restrictions, which might otherwise restrict solar-system installation or use. It behooves architects to work closely with clients, developers, and commercial property owners to identify such restrictions during the project-planning phase and determine whether these private land-use restrictions affect solar-system installation or use. Under most circumstances, the Solar Rights Act will prohibit such restrictions if they significantly reduce the ability to incorporate solar-energy systems in the project.

Solar Shade Act

The Solar Shade Act also assures architects that neighboring trees will not block sunlight to the solar energy systems. Other property owners are prevented from growing trees that will cast a shadow on more than 10 percent of the solar collectors' absorption surfaces at any time between 10:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m. This important act essentially creates an implied easement for sunlight, and benefits the project’s green goals.

Under this act, trees and shrubs that cast shadows on solar panels are viewed as a private nuisance, and the panel owner may give written notice to parties who own the shading trees or shrubs. If they fail to trim or remove them, the panel owner may sue for nuisance and seek a court order requiring neighbors to trim or remove the foliage.

Unknown Territory

Many unanswered questions are still not addressed under the Solar Rights and Solar Shade Acts. For example, visual blight, historical preservation, and large-scale solar projects are not addressed under the Solar Rights Act and may need to be addressed before a project’s plans are approved. Since the Solar Rights Act was drafted in the 1970s, it predates most large-scale solar projects and thus, it’s thought by many solar-rights attorneys to not apply to large-scale stand-alone projects such as a large solar farm. This issue has not been decided by the courts, though, and prevailing wisdom might prove wrong if a court interprets the act differently.

Other laws may also restrict size, placement, and use of solar installations. Fire codes, for example, often require the systems to be designed and placed in a way that they will not impede fire personnel from responding to emergencies, and these codes have special requirements on how and where electrical systems are designed. A city might refuse to issue building permits for a structure whose solar panels would be installed in a way that would pose a danger to firefighters walking on a roof, since fire codes often require "lanes" where firefighters can walk. Building codes, local environmental laws, and private land restrictions (such as easements and CC&Rs) may also affect installations. A city might refuse to issue a permit because the solar panels will cast glare onto a roadway, creating dangerous driving conditions. However, as noted above, a California city may not deny approval of a solar project unless such harms are evident.

These unknowns create uncertainty for architects looking to incorporate solar-energy systems into existing project renovations, as well as new projects. Protect a project’s design by consulting with attorneys that specialize in solar law. Consider what approvals you might need to receive from your local utility provider and whether your system must connect to the grid. Consider how the system will interface with other electrical components such as meters, and whether that raises safety issues. Also, keep maintenance needs in mind, as they may affect leases or other property documents.

Matthew M. Gorman is a partner and Anthony Marinaccio is an associate with Alvarez-Glasman & Colvin (agclawfirm.com), a law firm with offices in California that specializes in providing legal counseling in the fields of public agency law, construction and premises liability, real estate development, environmental compliance, redevelopment, and legislative advocacy. They can be reached at 562.699.5500.