A 30 kilowatt solar PV system on the roof of The Leonardo (Salt Lake City). Solar PV panels can remain in place for at least 25 years (and often much longer) and solar PV systems require uninterrupted access to sunlight for the entire lifetime of the system to ensure the maximum return on investment.
Local zoning ordinances and planning decisions can have a significant impact on the economics and viability of the local solar market. As such, comprehensive planning and solar zoning provisions provide a critical framework to support and encourage adoption of solar energy technologies. The following guiding principles outline the best practices for solar zoning that encompass the most critical issues affecting the economics and viability of solar projects.
Define and Defend Access to the Sun
1. Allow solar “by-right”
Access to solar 'by-right' is the most fundamental principal of solar zoning. As with any other property right, the right to access and utilize the solar resource on your property should be available, no matter where you are located. Allowing solar installations 'by-right' guarantees that all homes and buildings are able to access the solar resource on their property, without having to request special permission through a conditional use permit, which takes time and energy to navigate (and requires local government staff time to process and render a decision), thus adding costs and complexity to the solar process.
2. Allow active solar systems as an accessory use in all zones
Solar systems require access to direct sunlight to function at their full capacity. Allowing active solar systems as an accessory use in all zoning classifications where structures (of any sort) are allowed, subject to certain requirements, gives citizens and businesses the opportunity to install a system on their property and maximize their solar investment. Avoiding the conditional use process saves time and money for all involved (including the local government).
3. Allow maximum use of roof space
The economic return of a solar installation is tied directly to the size of the system (and the amount of energy that system is able to generate) relative to the user's energy bill. Unimpeded access to sunlight ensures the best possible return on investment. Allowing a citizen or business to place the system in a location optimal to gather sunlight, in accordance with applicable restrictions, will support and encourage solar development and give property owners certainty that they will be able to take maximum advantage of their rooftop property and solar resource.
4. Allow roof-mount, pole-mount, and ground-mount systems
Given design and orientation differences between properties, some will lend themselves to systems mounted on rooftops, while others will better be able to take advantage of the solar resource with ground-mounted or pole-mounted systems. Allowing a property owner to install all system types on their property will enable citizens to maximize the return on their solar investment.
5. Exercise your solar right!
Utah’s Solar Access Law (Utah Code Title 57, Chapter 13, Section 2) expressly enables local governments to enact solar rights provisions. Utah State Code 10-9a-610 stipulates that local zoning authorities may adopt regulations that mandate solar access and specifically grants governing bodies the right to refuse any plat or subdivision plan if deed restrictions, covenants or other agreements running with the land prohibit or have the effect of prohibiting reasonably sited and designed solar collectors or other renewable resource devices (including clothes lines).
6. Disallow Private Covenant Restrictions
Utah State Code 10-9a-610 allows a jurisdiction to enact restrictions that ensure that homeowners associations (HOAs) and other Private Covenants cannot unduly restrict solar adoption. Taking advantage of this provision ensures that citizens of a jurisdiction are able to take maximal advantage of their solar resource and build the most economically advantageous system.
7. Consider Exceptions in Special Zoning Districts
In special zoning districts with more restrictive requirements for aesthetics, such as historic districts or forest and canyon special use districts, consider allowing solar systems that conform to the intended feel of an area, rather than just restricting them outright from that area. Many of these areas have excellent solar resources and technology should not be prohibited without first exploring possible compromises. While aesthetic concerns should be taken into account, most issues can be alleviated with the proper siting of panels on a structure and by using solar technologies that are the most aesthetic for the situation.
Protect Your Community’s Access to Sunlight
8. Solar Access Protections
Active solar energy systems are built to last; most are warrantied 25-30 years, and many continue producing well beyond that time frame. As such, solar is inherently a long-term investment. Provisions to address and protect long-term access to sunlight can go a long way in improving investor confidence that the solar resource will remain strong over time. There are several provisions local governments can enact in Utah to protect access to sunlight, including:
- Rooftop Protection: Protects the sunlight falling on south-facing rooftops of structures and favors the use of active solar energy systems for both space and domestic water heating. Also applicable for passive solar measures, including skylights and other systems with internal heat collectors.
- South Wall/South Lot Protection: Protects the rooftops, south wall, and south lot adjacent to the south wall for both active and passive solar systems.
- Detached Collector Protection: Protects only part of the lot for use by detached collector systems, such as a free-standing collector or a garage or accessory building roof.
9. Encourage & Enforce Solar Easements
A solar easement is a written and duly recorded agreement between parties, typically neighboring property owners, whose interests may be affected by the installation of a solar energy system. The issues covered by easements may include shading by trees, maximum building heights, and other pertinent matters; for example, an easement may include an agreement to keep area trees trimmed so that they do not block the solar system on the next roof. The Utah Solar Access Statute (Utah State Code 57-13-2) expressly creates a solar easement process by which parties may voluntarily enter into written solar easement contracts that are enforceable by law. An easement must be created in writing and filed, duly recorded and indexed in the office of the recorder of the county in which the easement is granted. A solar easement, once created, runs with the land and does not terminate unless specified by conditions of the easement. According to Utah State Code: 57-13-2, a solar easement may be enforced by injunction proceedings or other civil action. Local governments can and should encourage all citizens and businesses with installed solar (or passive solar buildings) to file an easement upon completion of their project. This may help mitigate or resolve future conflicts among neighboring property owners. A jurisdiction should define where the easement can be filed and define which entity has the ultimate jurisdiction over the easement.
10. Establish a Process for Conflict Mitigation and Compensation
When planning a solar installation, residents have the responsibility to design the system with their neighbors in mind. Solar systems can generate electricity for decades, and it is important to realize that if a neighbor has not built their property to its maximum allowable height or setback, they retain the right to do so in the future. It is the responsibility of a system designer to place the system in an area that will not be affected by future remodels. A jurisdiction, however, may mandate the compensation of a solar system owner should a new and unforeseen development block a significant amount of their solar resource. This protects system owners from economic damage if their system’s output is decreased, and encourages solar installation by eliminating the fear that a system will not generate at its capacity for its lifetime.
Encourage Solar, Empower your Community
11. Include Solar in the Master Plan
A jurisdiction's Master, or General, Plan takes a long-term perspective on the community's future and can provide a broader view of how the community will evolve than a zoning ordinance is able to. As such, Master Plan updates are a great time to consider long-term sustainability goals, including solar energy adoption throughout the community. Including a strong commitment to solar energy in a Master Plan also demonstrates to prospective businesses, residents, and employees that sustainability and environmental stewardship are important values to the local community.
12. Encourage Solar with Incentives
Incentive-based zoning can help encourage both passive and active solar technologies in new developments, along with 'solar-ready' features in the building like solar-ready wiring or strategic placement of other rooftop elements in order to maximize roof space. Possible incentives include:
- Expedited Approval: Speeding up the permitting or zoning approval process for developments or buildings that meet certain active, passive, solar-ready, or net zero energy requirements.
- Density Bonuses: Granting density bonuses for applications for subdivisions, such that the maximum number of lots allowed increases by a certain amount provided that active and/or passive solar technologies are utilized by each building.
- Vacant Lot Preferences: When vacant parcels of land under City ownership are auctioned, the City can award a bid preference (up to a certain amount) when awarding the bid in exchange for a certain amount of solar installed on the fully-built out parcel.
- Other incentives include: Affordable housing offsets, commercial parking requirement offsets, zoning use variances, or permission to build slightly taller structures than allowed by the current zoning regulations.
13. Enact Solar Requirements for New Developments
Requiring proper lot orientation and building orientation to maximize passive solar design in new developments is a low-cost way to ensure that new buildings and homes are well-suited for solar energy development and energy efficiency. Going a step further, communities can require a certain percentage of homes or buildings in new developments to meet some or all of their energy needs with active solar energy systems.
14. Prioritize ‘Solar Ready’ Provisions
Solar-ready buildings, lots, and developments make it easier and more cost-effective to utilize passive solar techniques and adopt active solar technologies in the future. Many existing building are not suitable for solar because of their size, orientation, or rooftop configuration. Encouraging and prioritizing “Solar Ready” buildings, lots, and developments is an easy and low-cost way to ensure that future buildings and communities will be well-suited for active and passive solar elements and ready to maximize their solar potential.
15. Adopt the Model Solar Zoning Ordinance
Clearly establishing strong solar provisions in your local ordinances will simultaneously mitigate future solar conflicts, while also encouraging new solar market activity in your community.