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Understanding Your Solar Access Rights

If you’re thinking about solar but you’re not sure if your community will allow you to put it up, you should first get to know your solar rights for the individual state you live.   Your solar installer or contractor should be able to help you navigate through this process, although in many cases you may need an attorney.

Solar electric systems require direct access to sunlight to operate at full efficiency.  The installation of a solar system on a new or existing structure calls for exterior modifications subject to building codes and private regulation.   The United States has maintained that there is no common law right to sunlight.  For this reason, regulations have been put in place to protect people who want to put up a new solar system and protect the access to sunlight for systems already installed.

There are two main directives regarding solar access: solar easements and solar rights.  A solar easement describes the mechanism in which one property can maintain access to sunlight without any obstruction from another’s property.   Solar rights describe the ability to install solar systems on property that may be subject to private restrictions, local government ordinances, and building codes.

At least 34 states currently have regulations concerning solar easements and solar rights which leave 16 states that have no protection.   Some of these states that have no protection are surprising because they have favorable renewable energy policies (for example, Connecticut, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Texas, Vermont).

Let’s use Massachusetts as an example of solar access regulations.  Massachusetts is a state that has both a solar easement and a solar access permit.   The solar easements in the state protect solar exposure and authorize zoning rules that prohibit unreasonable infringements on solar access.  Comparable to solar easement regulations in other states, Massachusetts solar easements permit the voluntary creation of solar access contracts, but do not make solar access an automatic right. In addition, the statutes allow for communities to authorize zoning boards to issue permits creating solar rights.

Massachusetts prohibits any restrictions on solar, negating “any provision in an instrument relative to the ownership or use of real property which purports to forbid or unreasonably restrict the installation or use of a solar energy system … or the building of structures that facilitate the collection of solar energy.”  The state also has provisions that include the regulation of vegetation on public property to protect solar access on public and private solar power systems.

The Massachusetts Solar Access Law was passed in 1985, but it’s not a great example because there are no cases that cite the statute.    Although the state is said to have one of the better solar access policies, the law is up to interpretation because it hasn’t been tested.   That being said, your solar installer may be helpful in guiding you through solar access policies, but an attorney will be the best resource to understanding your rights.

For more information on understanding your solar rights, you should read the” Comprehensive Review of Solar Access Law in the United States” by the Solar America Board of Codes and Standards.

Download a copy of the report at:  http://www.solarabcs.org/solaraccess

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