California has been a leader in promoting solar energy. In 1976, it started to provide financial incentives for investment in solar energy technologies. One legacy of California’s early interest in solar energy is a series of laws designed to protect a consumer’s right to install and operate solar energy technology on a home or business, including access to sunlight, or solar access.
Sometimes, local ordinances or homeowner’s association (HOA) rules can affect the installation of solar systems on homes or businesses. While these rules are often created to ensure uniformity or uphold a community’s aesthetic standard, they may inadvertently prohibit solar installation.
Let us understand it by an example:
A homeowner purchases a solar energy system. Approval from the architectural review board (ARB) is pending. The contractor applies for a permit from the local building agency, which refuses to issue the permit until a copy of the ARB approval is received. Alternatively, the ARB requires a copy of the permit before approval is granted. The building permit process is so cumbersome, that the contractor does not pull a permit, and ARB approval is denied.
The bottom line is that sometimes the law failed to protect the solar owner or the intended solar owner. Instead, it cost the solar owner more than the value of the solar energy system to secure that protection.
However, the State Legislature intents that local agencies should not adopt ordinances that create unreasonable barriers to the installation of solar energy systems, including, but not limited to, design review for aesthetic purposes, and unreasonably restrict the ability of homeowners and agricultural and business concerns to install solar energy systems. But the bottom line
Across the country, lawmakers are now acting to protect property owners’ solar access rights. Solar easements allow a property owner to negotiate for the rights to unobstructed sunlight on their property.
Hence, California’s Solar Access Act (SAA) has passed the state’s Senate, clearing its final legislative hurdle, and will now be sent to Governor Gavin Newsom to be signed into law.
The Act demands instant, online solar permitting in cities and counties. Lawmakers hope it will decrease approval times for residential solar and solar-plus-storage systems, cut permitting costs for local governments and homeowners at the same time, and help California meet its target of becoming carbon neutral by 2045.
Co-sponsored by SPUR and Environment California, the SAA passed California’s Senate on a concurrence vote of 33-3. It was put forward by Democrat Senator Scott Wiener from San Francisco and was co-authored by Assemblymember Al Muratsuchi.
“It takes way too long to get permits for clean energy,” said Senator Wiener. “For the future of our planet, we need to make it easier to install solar panels and energy storage on homes across the state. The Solar Access Act will help California achieve our climate goals.”
Moreover, delays due to long permit and inspection wait times have also blunted solar deployment in the state but automated permitting solves both of these issues, Wiener’s team said.
“The Solar Access Act will allow California to implement a timely and comprehensive solution.”
The SAA requires cities with more than 5,000 residents, counties with more than 150,000 residents and all cities within those counties, to implement instant online permitting for solar and solar-plus-storage systems.
The requirement will go into effect starting 30 September 2024 for cities under 50,000 residents, and 30 September 2023 for cities, counties, and cities and counties over 50,000 residents. The requirement also applies to charter cities.
California’s residential solar sector has been racked with uncertainty over the past year or so. The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) had proposed changes to the state’s net meter laws, dubbed NEM 3.0.
CPUC decided to indefinitely delay its decision on the changes in February following significant backlash from consumer groups, trade bodies, and Californian politicians, who called for a “dramatically revised policy.” However, in May it admitted defeat and asked for feedback on how a better-designed system could work as it seeks to reboot the process.
In such situations, Solar access laws provide more protection to solar customers by prohibiting or limiting private restrictions on solar energy installations.