Solar Energy Systems – An Ongoing Hot Debate
March 30, 2015
The California Solar Rights Act (“Solar Rights Act”), found at Civil Code Sections 714 and 714.1, provides certain protections for homeowners seeking to install solar energy systems (i.e., solar panels) on their properties. The intent of the Solar Rights Act is to prohibit homeowners associations (“HOAs”) from broadly banning solar energy systems for aesthetic reasons–whether through an explicit ban or through onerous architectural restrictions that greatly reduce the performance of solar energy systems, or increase their costs. To that end, the Solar Rights Act renders void and unenforceable any provision of a HOA’s governing documents that “effectively prohibits or restricts the installation or use of a solar energy system.” Civ. Code § 714(a).
The Solar Rights Act does, however, allow for a HOA to place “reasonable restrictions” on the installation or use of solar energy systems. “Reasonable restrictions” are those which do not “significantly increase the costs of the system or significantly decrease its efficiency or specified performance.” Civ. Code § 714(b). In determining what constitutes a “significant” increase in cost or a “significant” decrease in performance in the context of solar panels, the Solar Rights act currently sets those thresholds at a $2,000 and 20%, respectively. Civ. Code § 714(d)(1)(B). Thus, under the text of the current Solar Rights Act, if complying with a provision in a HOA’s governing documents would, for example, only result in a 14% decrease in the system’s performance, that provision would be valid and enforceable. This issue was addressed in the Tesoro case that we blogged about in 2011.
However, the passage of AB 2188 (Muratsuchi) will serve to cut those thresholds in half. Effective January 1, 2015, AB 2188 will amend the term “significantly” to mean an amount not exceeding $1,000 or deceasing the efficiency of the system by more than 10%. AB 2188 will also reduce the thresholds for other types of solar energy systems (i.e., solar heating systems) in a similar fashion. AB 2188 further shortens the timeline for a HOA to review and approve/disapprove a solar energy system application (from 60 days down to 45 days), as well as modify various certification requirements affecting proposed systems.
The current language of the Solar Rights Act severely limits the degree to which a HOA may restrict the installation and use of solar energy systems. However, as a result of AB 2188 and its reduced cost increase/performance decrease thresholds, the ability for HOAs to restrict solar energy systems will be effectively nullified. With the increasing prevalence of solar panels, HOA Boards of Directors and management professionals must be aware of the Solar Rights Act and the likelihood that any substantive architectural restriction on the use of solar panels may not ultimately be enforceable.
By Steven J. Tinnelly, Esq.