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Empowering Western NC and Upstate SC with Solar Since 1995

The Solarize Asheville campaign, as you’ve likely heard, received tremendous response, with well over 360 homeowners enrolling to see if this could be their opportunity to go solar. As we’ve been working with these solar enthusiasts, the big question I’ve been asked is “how many will end up going solar?”  Given that the program offers solid components, quality system design and exceptional service (if I may say so myself!) at a reduced cost, one would expect a high percentage of enrollees to move forward with an installation. It is difficult to determine at this point in time, but I’m being conservatively realistic, with projections of 30- 40%; 50 % would be incredible! So, what might keep folks that are eager to bring solar energy systems to their homes from Solarizing?

Limited access to the Sun itself has been one common barrier that our consultants are seeing, which was expected, considering that many of these homes are in shaded neighborhoods.  Some homeowners have been willing to engage an arborist for tree trimming, or even removal in some cases.  But when the shade comes from a neighbor’s tree, and is significantly impacting the insolation on one’s site, that could be a damper on a solar dream.

While shading or other physical barriers may be inflexible, the other limitations to solar access that can arise take form as restrictions imposed on the homeowner by outside parties.  Fortunately, these limitations are not as rigid as some perceive, and have been changing as solar is becoming mainstream and more widely adopted. Fortunately, we don’t hear people say things like “my HOA won’t allow solar” as much as we did five years ago.

What we are seeing with Solarize Asheville, however, is that several of the more active neighborhoods, such as Montford, are registered as Local and National Historic Districts, where keeping the homes in historic character is important. Recognizing that this can be sensitive territory, the SunShot Solar Outreach Partnership, through which Solarize has been templated, has prepared a series of briefing papers designed to help planners and public officials understand some key issues in planning for solar energy use. In one, entitled “Balancing Solar Energy Use with Potential Competing Interests” it is acknowledged that historic preservation and solar power generation are often both part of a community’s plan to become more sustainable. However, while solar is part of an energy solution for the future, historic preservation is the key to protecting the community’s past. Tension has developed between these two interests as communities struggle with how to both preserve their past and ensure a sustainable future.

While the above paints a possible scenario of struggle, we have seen that the Historic Resources Commission here in Asheville has been pro-solar. In examining Montford’s Historic District Guidelines, the verbage addressing solar  is positive:

 As alternative energy producing technology continues to improve and become more available and affordable, homeowners may be interested in retrofitting their historic homes with these new devices. In the spirit of sustainability and conservation of energy and the environment, the Historic Resources Commission welcomes the introduction of renewable energy systems while preserving the architectural integrity of the district. It is strongly recommended that solar collectors be sited, oriented, and installed by a licensed solar installer to prevent any damage to the structure.

However, it does continue to lay out specific guidelines, some of which may be directly limiting:

1. Solar energy collectors shall be located as inconspicuously as possible while still allowing for reasonable use. Every effort should be made to limit impact to historic character defining features.

2. Installation of solar devices on roof surfaces facing the primary public right-of-way shall be considered only when no other option is possible and there is no detrimental impact to the integrity of the historic structure and neighborhood. All work must be easily reversible.

3. Solar energy collectors shall not be located in the front yard.

4. Every effort shall be made to screen solar energy collectors from the public view, provided this restriction does not have the effect of preventing the reasonable use of a solar-energy collector

5. Solar collectors must be mounted as flush as possible with the roof and not extend beyond any roof ridge.

6. Trees or existing historic structures should not be removed to provide adequate solar exposure but should be taken into account when siting collector location and orientation to allow for reasonable efficiency.

The above is an attempt to clarify the circumstances in which a solar installation may not be appropriate in a historic neighborhood, and variations of restrictions can be found in HOA covenants all over, for various reasons. However, recognizing that statewide guidelines could help ensure that solar access wasn’t unduly restricted, NC adopted Senate Bill 670 in 2007, known as the NC Solar Access Law:

AN ACT TO PROVIDE THAT CITY ORDINANCES, COUNTY ORDINANCES, AND DEED RESTRICTIONS, COVENANTS, AND OTHER SIMILAR AGREEMENTS CANNOT PROHIBIT OR HAVE THE EFFECT OF PROHIBITING THE INSTALLATION OF SOLAR COLLECTORS NOT FACING PUBLIC ACCESS OR COMMON AREAS ON DETACHED SINGLE-FAMILY RESIDENCES.

Interestingly enough, this bill was initiated by a Montford homeowner, Nathan Boniske, a long time solar enthusiast. After learning of a similar bill being adopted in California, he spoke with Representative Susan C. Fisher who introduced it to legislature and saw it into law.  Mr. Boniske is enrolled in Solarize Ashevlle and is in the process of evaluating his site for solar. He does not anticipate that he’ll have problems getting it approved as it will likely be sited in his back yard.

So, the question of when solar can be denied, and by whom, may be narrower than many think, and there is always room for interpretation. We appreciate that there are circumstances in which a solar installation may not be appropriate, or feasible, and that is unfortunate, but we expect that this will be the exception, rather than the norm. So, what is your bet? We’ll have to wait until the contract signing deadline of February 28 closes to know for sure. Hopefully it will be on the high side… this is Asheville!

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