An Overreaching Arm of Regulation?

Residential solar is making new headlines, again. This time, however, isn’t worth the hype reserved for record-setting accomplishments in the rapidly growing industry. Residential PV has raised the profile of a topic that usually has to claw its way into widespread media: municipal property regulations.

Some communities in areas where rooftop solar has picked up – particularly in New Jersey – have started to re-examine their municipal codes and regulations keeping the latest wave of residential property improvements in check. Though these sometimes nit-picky ordinances are handled on the local level, the conversation about a slew of building regulations has caught the attention of the entire industry. This is an expected reaction, not only because these ordinances impact local installers, system designers, and prospective customers by adding new “soft” costs and requirements, but also because regulations of this nature can have a domino effect on a state-wide industry. (If you don’t believe me, just ask North Carolinians about local regulations prohibiting wind turbines.) Plus, once these regulations get on the books, they are very hard to get rid of.

None of this is to say that local regulations over solar PV installations aren’t needed or don’t serve an important purpose. They are and they do. Serious hazards exist when generating current, converting it from DC to AC, and storing it for later use, not to mention sticking a bunch of polycrystalline panels on a roof. No question is it in everyone’s best interests to make sure these hazards are accounted for and marginalized within any reasonable measure.

But this latest outcry isn’t as much about safety as it is about aesthetics. I will grant you I have not sifted through the pages of regulations in towns like Hackensack, New Jersey, where this is currently a hot-button issue. But most municipal ordinances governing PV installations are based on Article 690 of the National Electrical Code (NEC), which has been constantly revised to keep pace with evolving industry standards. I won’t describe the 60+ pages of the Article here, but it identifies possible flaws in wiring and battery storage that create fire hazards, considers the possible dangers posed by a PV system in the event of a house fire, accounts for external weather factors that could dismantle a system from the roof, and lays out practices to reduce the possibility of any of these (and many other) dangers from occurring. Simply put, it accounts for most imaginable issues that could arise from installing a solar electricity-generating system on one’s roof.

As I said, I’m all for making sure each community is in line with these regulations. And if anything, we could probably streamline – not trim – these requirements so they weren’t so onerous for homeowners and installers. But what’s really driving this conversation is PSE&G’s pole mount program, which aims to install 200,000 small PV panels on utility poles across the state. The program has garnered some resentment from a few detractors whose lines of sight are now obstructed by newly installed panels on their utility poles.

Granted, it’s probably not a good idea to have concentrating solar power mirrors in someone’s front yard (concerned residents and officials have noted reflective solar energy systems as an eyesore they wish to avoid). And unnecessary obstructions of a person’s view from his or her private property should be avoided. But how much of an aesthetic eyesore do rooftop panels, which typically are out of sight, blend into the roof, and align with the roof, really cause neighbors? The reason to exercise caution about local votes to enact new regulations over aesthetics is less to do with what the law actually says and more to do with the residual effect (and attitude) it encourages. It probably wouldn’t request anything terribly onerous (though I wouldn’t be the house on it…no pun intended). Rather, it applies a negative sentiment over poorly placed panels on utility poles to residential PV installations, and creates one more set of hoops to jump through to do something that will benefit everyone in the neighborhood! (See the recent article on distributed generation).

Let’s admit that the utility pole program creates aesthetic concerns that residential rooftop solar by and large does not, and let cooler heads prevail before we put something on the books that makes it harder to go solar.

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