Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Securing Solar Access in Portland: Voluntary Solar Easements Are Not Enough

By Andrea Lang, Energy Fellow

Last week, I attended Solar Now! University, a conference put on by Solar Oregon with lots of great local presenters on topics related to solar technology and policy. While I could write many pages (and I likely will, in future) on all the interesting solar technologies being developed, the panel that got me thinking the most was on the issue of planning and zoning for solar.

One risk of developing solar energy on your home or business is that future development could block your panels’ access to the sunlight. Currently, the only protection for solar access in Portland is through voluntary easements: Oregon law allows solar owners to enter into contracts with neighbors to secure a solar easement so that panels won’t be shaded. The problem with this kind of easement is that parties to these agreements do not have equal bargaining power. Solar owners need to ensure that the easement will run with the land, so that the solar access lasts into the future. Neighbors, on the other hand, do not want to restrict future development on their properties, and agreeing to an easement that runs with the land has the potential to affect property value. As a result, neighbors will often refuse to enter into a solar easement, or will demand exorbitant amounts of money in exchange.

There are a number of other policy options the City of Portland could consider besides solar easements. Ashland’s municipal code, for example, protects solar access from shading by buildings through required setbacks establishing a minimum distance between a proposed structure and a solar owner’s property boundary. To protect from shading by vegetation, Ashland allows solar owners to apply for a Solar Access Permit, which imposes duties on neighbors to trim vegetation to preserve solar access. In another example, the City of Boulder uses its zoning code to protect solar access. Boulder’s zoning code creates an invisible “solar fence” around properties, which protects properties from shading by adjacent properties. Like Ashland, Boulder also has a permit system in place to provide further protection beyond the “solar fence.” 

I realize that enacting laws restricting construction and tree growth is a tough proposition in a city like Portland that favors building up instead of out, and that prides itself on being literally green. Yet, earlier this summer, the City of Portland adopted an ambitious climate action plan which lays out strategies to achieve an 80% reduction in carbon emissions by 2050 and acknowledges the importance of solar development to cutting emissions. However, if Portland really wants to encourage solar development, it should consider adopting new policies that would reduce the risks associated with solar investments by making sure that solar access is secured for those who choose to invest in it. Given the expense of obtaining a solar easement, or the risk of proceeding without one, a voluntary easement system is simply not enough.

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