States allow energy-saving home features
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States eager to promote renewable energy are increasingly passing laws that allow homeowners to overcome local opposition to home solar panels and wind turbines.
Since 2005, eight states - including four last year - have enacted laws to abolish stringent rules imposed by some homeowners associations and local agencies on residents who want to power their homes with the sun or wind. Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley signed such a bill two weeks ago. Final action is near in Virginia and Florida.
Some new laws say homeowners groups can't ban such technology. Others say local governments can't enforce rules that significantly raise the cost of installing eco-friendly energy systems.
"If you're going to have local governments and condo associations saying, 'Solar panels are ugly,' that's a real stumbling block," says state Democratic Rep. Karen May, a sponsor of a "solar rights bill" pending in Illinois.
In Arizona, homeowner Matt Burdick and others successfully lobbied lawmakers to prevent homeowners associations from interfering with solar-panel installation. The day the law took effect, Burdick's association gave him the approval he had long sought for panels to heat his swimming pool.
James Draheim and his family have installed energy-efficient windows, lights and appliances in their Burke, Va., home and wanted to outfit their roof with solar panels.
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The local homeowners association, the Burke Centre Conservancy, was "flat-out against it" because of worries about how it would look, Draheim says. His reaction: "You've got this energy just falling on your property and you're not allowed to use it because of aesthetics?"
Patrick Gloyd, director of the homeowners association, says that he's not familiar with Draheim's request but that the association bans only solar panels visible from the street. Draheim has shelved his plans - a common response by those who run into opposition, renewable-energy companies say.
There are no hard statistics, but renewable-energy experts say clashes over homegrown renewable energy are on the rise as more Americans seek to cut their utility bills or their carbon footprint.
Sometimes it's local authorities who stand in the way by refusing to issue the necessary permits, or by charging such high permit fees that homeowners can't afford them.
States have responded by enacting laws designed to protect homeowners from restrictive neighborhood associations and local regulators. In California, a "solar rights" law that took effect in 2005 bars cities and counties from restricting on-home solar power.
States are taking action in part because dozens face self-imposed deadlines to increase their use of renewable energy. Legislators are eager to enlist homeowners to help meet those goals, says Rusty Haynes, program coordinator at a solar-power research center at North Carolina State University.
"To get from point A to point B, you have to remove every obstacle," he says, including regulations from homeowners associations.
The laws in California and elsewhere don't necessarily make it a snap to put up solar panels or a wind turbine. Many homeowners associations aren't familiar with the laws. If they nix a request to install a green-power system, the resident often gives up rather than research the law or take legal action, renewable-energy experts say.
Legislation "addresses some of the issues, but it doesn't make them go away," California solar-power consultant Les Nelson says.
Only 250,000 of the 100-million-plus U.S. homes have solar panels for electricity or water heating, the Solar Energy Industries Association estimates. The USA ranks fourth on the list of nations that have installed the most solar-power technology, behind Germany, Japan and Spain, the association says.
Bills that would protect homeowners wanting to go solar were introduced in both houses of Congress last year, but few members have signed on as co-sponsors. The bills have not come up for a vote.
Frank Rathbun, vice president at the Community Association Institute, which represents homeowners groups, says residents, not governments, should decide how their communities look.
For Rosemary Canfield, government is the barrier. Almost 18 months after getting a bid to place solar panels on the roof of her Pismo Beach, Calif., home, Canfield and her family are still not operating on sun power because of a dispute with the city planning department. That's despite the fact that California law says local officials can vet solar projects only for "public health and safety."
"My frustration level is pretty high at this point," Canfield says. "We've gone through all the steps we were asked to go through, and we're still here waiting."
Pismo Beach senior planner Scot Graham says the Canfields' proposed solar panels would violate height limits on buildings by the coast. He says nothing in state law prevents the city from asking the Canfields to reconfigure their solar panels to meet the height limit.
Renewable-energy proponents say cases such as the Canfields' show that only a national law will make homegrown wind and solar power as common as they should be. Promoting renewable energy is "a national imperative," says Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Calif., who introduced a bill that would ban strict regulations on home solar panels. "There are a lot of impediments. We're trying to do everything we can to pave the way."