When the Joneses go solar

As photovoltaic panels pop up on rooftops, planners feel the pain

  • Planners in Los Gatos, Calif., originally prohibited Jim Deichstetter from installing solar panels in front of his house for aesthetic reasons. A change in California law ultimately forced the city to allow the panels

    PHOTO COURTESY HORIZON ENERGY SYSTEMS
 

In the summer of 2003, Jim Deichstetter applied for a building permit to install solar panels on his property in Los Gatos, Calif., a residential community in the San Francisco Bay Area. Just to get a planning review, Deichstetter had to fork over $3,000. A few months later, the planning commission told Deichstetter that his plan did not conform to the town’s design guidelines and that the solar panels would have to be positioned in a way that would put them in the shadow of his neighbor’s house. That would have meant a significant productivity loss, so Deichstetter gave up his solar dreams. “The town felt that aesthetically speaking, having these solar panels was an eyesore,” he says.

Meanwhile, in another part of town, the Los Gatos Planning Department ordered the owner of a local solar power company, Akeena Solar, to remove or cover up 18 solar panels installed on the company’s office roof because three were visible from the street.

As solar panels pop up on rooftops throughout the West, the hunger to go green increasingly conflicts with land-use regulations, zoning laws and design guidelines that may have been decades in the making. That has forced planners to attempt to reconcile the often-opposing values of efficiency and aesthetics — to somehow balance a shiny black photovoltaic array, for example, with the architectural guidelines in a Victorian historic district.

In Los Gatos, Akeena Solar sued the city and began pushing for a new law. Ultimately, the state stepped in on the side of solar and passed legislation prohibiting local governments from denying solar energy permits on the basis of aesthetics alone. Since the law went into effect in January 2005, most California cities have modified their zoning regulations to exempt solar panels from the design review process, and they’ve lowered and evened out permitting costs. “It’s so much easier now,” says Kurt Newick, chairman of the Global Warming and Energy Committee of the Loma Prieta Chapter of the Sierra Club. “All the cities are coming in line.”

In Los Gatos, both Deichstetter and Akeena Solar got their panels approved after the new legislation passed.

That’s good news for green-leaning homeowners who want to take part in the California Solar Initiative, which gives cash incentives for solar systems in hopes of creating 3,000 megawatts of new solar electricity by 2017. But for community officials, the idea of a “Million Solar Roofs,” as Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger dubs the initiative, is a potential planning nightmare. Though the Solar Rights Act renders California governments virtually powerless to stop new solar installations unless health and safety reasons are involved, they still have to grapple with the effects. Meanwhile, other states are just beginning to deal with the issue as their renewable energy initiatives go into effect.

It’s not just the brand-new solar installations that can clash with a community’s aesthetic standards. Plenty of rooftops still sport the dilapidated remains of the last solar boom of the 1970s, and it’s not always pretty. Planners worry how today’s boom might look in the future.

“The challenge is that sometimes panels get neglected over time,” says Blake Lyon, senior planner for Redwood City, Calif. “It is just sitting there looking like an eyesore, and it is not doing anybody any good.”

Oftentimes, though, the choice is not as simple as being green or being pretty; being green can also conflict with being green. Last year, a Redwood City resident wanted to remove trees along the street because they were standing in between the sun and his solar panel system. The city turned him down. “While we are definitely trying to encourage and support solar panel access, the street tree is a community asset,” explains Lyon. Not only that, but trees also suck up greenhouse gases, and their shade reduces the need for power-hungry air conditioners. “You are potentially degrading the community for the benefit of one individual,” says Lyon. “It’s a conflict of positives.”

Jackie Lynch, a planner with the city of Bellingham, Wash., has similar worries about the clash between solar access and other environmental concerns. “Should we be limiting building heights in urban areas for solar?” she says. Doing so may increase solar energy potential, but it also discourages cluster development, leading to urban sprawl.

Bellingham’s current zoning code does not provide for solar protection, and planners handle these issues on a case-by-case basis. “You have to have an informed decision on where and when and how to place that solar panel,” says Lynch. A few years ago, a developer applied for a permit to construct a tall building next to a solar-based low-income multi-family complex. The building would shade the solar system next door, but the city was unable to do anything about it. “We contacted the building housing authorities running the solar panel project, and all we could do was apologize,” says Lynch.

Some California planners are trying to replace their lost regulatory power with education. Bud Lortz, Los Gatos’ director of community development, meets with people who want to install solar panels. “We work with them hand-in-hand and also with the solar industry to achieve a good balance,” he says. “Quality architecture and sustainability are not mutually exclusive, meaning you can achieve both. You just have to put some thought on how you approach it.”

Though solar panels are not yet very common in Bellingham, Lynch expects that as the cost goes down, more residents will want to get power from the sun. And, she says, the level of conflict will increase. “We will have to deal with that,” she says. “But I don’t know how.”

The author is a freelance writer and photographer based in Vancouver, British Columbia, who specializes in cities and the environment.

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