Stop Shading My Solar Panels! Solar Access Rights in the US


Imagine that, after several years of tossing around the idea of installing solar, you finally decide to pull the trigger and go for it.

You get quotes, choose an installation company, and get a brand new solar system installed on your roof! Your system is producing great and is covering almost all of your energy use. Not too bad!

Everything is going fine until a few years later, when you notice that your neighbor’s trees are starting to get a little big and are shading one or two of your solar panels on your roof. No big deal, you think, it’s just a little bit of shade.

A couple more years go by and you notice that even more of your panels are shaded. Worse yet, you’ve started to notice that your monthly energy production is less than previous years.

What do you do? You pay your neighbor a friendly visit, explain the situation, and ask them to trim their trees back. They don’t really like that idea and refuse immediately? They planted the trees themselves and have grown attached, so they don’t want to cut any down.

Doesn’t sound like a very fun situation, right?

Access to consistent sunlight for solar homeowners is an issue that is becoming more and more common across the country, seemingly pitting two earth-friendly values against each other. Most solar leases last for 20 years – more than enough time for trees and shrubs to grow large enough to shade solar panels. If the trees are on your own yard, it’s no big deal – just trim or cut them down.

But if the trees are located on your neighbors yard, who has the “right of way” – the solar producer who needs them gone or the tree-lover who planted them?

A handful of states, like California, have passed legislation dealing head on with this shading issue. Outside of those states though, if shading becomes an issue with your solar installation, there is little legal action you can take.

But that doesn’t mean you have to hand in the towel if you’re interested in solar. With careful planning and conversations with neighbors, a homeowner can enjoy the benefits of solar while still enjoying beautiful foliage in his front yard.

The California Lawsuit that Started It All

In 1978, California passed numerous solar-supportive laws, such as legislation to provide financial incentives for homeowners who install solar systems. As part of this collection of legislation, they also passed the Solar Shade Act (AB 2321), which was designed to provide protection to solar homeowners from shade caused by trees or shrubs. With a few exceptions, any time vegetation shaded a solar system, it must be removed, with a penalty of $1000 per day that the tree or shrub remained. Ouch!

The Solar Shade Act sat in relative obscurity with no one paying much attention for almost 30 years, until a solar homeowner in Northern California, angry at the increasing shade his solar panels were seeing, sued his tree-loving neighbor.

In 2001, the homeowner had just installed 128 solar panels in his backyard, just a few years after his neighbors planted a handful of redwood trees in their backyard. Quickly after installing the solar panels, the homeowner noticed the shading and asked his neighbors to cut down the trees, citing the Solar Shade Act and telling them about the $1000 per day fine. The neighbors refused. They had, after all, planted the trees themselves.

Fast forward to 2005 – the trees have grown even higher and the solar homeowner is getting more and more frustrated at all the energy he is missing out on. At this point, he decided to sue his neighbors using the Solar Shade Act, the first use of this law in court.

After much media fanfare the judge, although he did say it was difficult to view trees as a “nuisance”, eventually agreed with the solar homeowner and forced the neighbors to trim their beloved trees – in front of many news cameras parked at the house.

After the Lawsuit

After the judge handed down the decision, many felt a certain injustice with the law. After all, the neighbors had planted the redwood trees before the homeowner had even installed his solar system.

In 2008, after the high-profile lawsuit was closed, California state Senator Joe Simitian introduced Senate Bill 1399, which alters the Solar Shade Act and provides an exemption to trees that were planted before the solar system was installed and for trees that are replacing previously existing trees. The bill passed, avoiding further situations like this in California.

Growth in Other States

As solar continues to grow, trees shading solar installations is becoming more and more of a problem. Most states have few if any solar access laws, especially in regards to shading from trees. Only a handful of areas such as California, Wisconsin, and Ashland, Oregon, have shading-specific solar laws.

In 1982, a legal battle in Wisconsin brought about solar shade laws similar to California’s Solar Shade Act. In Prah vs Maretti, a solar homeowner sued his neighbor who wanted to build a structure that would block the sunlight to his solar panels. The homeowner sued on the grounds that the building would be a ‘private nuisance’, a use of the term never before used in the state.

Initially, a lower court dismissed the claim, saying that blocking sunlight did not count as a private nuisance. However, the state’s Supreme Court reversed the decision and allowed the lawsuit to continue, agreeing that the structure could be considered a nuisance as the homeowner needs the sunlight for energy production, not just for aesthetic reasons. The case never went to trial though, and new solar access laws were adopted that same year.

The City of Ashland, Oregon, also has established rules around shading. The city created a solar easement law. Residents request a solar access permit, which logs the solar installation with the city and then provides protection against any shading from trees that did not exist or were under 15 feet tall at the time of installation.

The ordinance also places rules around the height of shade that falls on residential areas. Commercial plots that are adjacent and south of residential land must limit shading to 16 feet over the northern property line, while residential plots must limit shading to 6 feet over. According to the City of Ashland, the rules have caused few issues in the past with developers.

In areas outside of Oregon, California and Wisconsin, the situation can more tenuous. Most states don’t have solar access or shading laws and the best legal recourse solar homeowners have is suing neighbors under nuisance laws – a risky endeavor.

In 2012, a Florida homeowner installed a large solar system on his home, only to find his neighbor planting Cyprus trees just across the property line. After reading that the trees could grow up to 100 feet, the homeowner asked his neighbor to remove them. The neighbor refused, saying his trees will likely only grow 30 feet and that, if they grow higher, he’ll take care of them. The solar homeowner wasn’t satisfied with this situation and decided to pursue legal action.

He quickly found that, unlike in California, he had no legal recourse to force removal of the trees. Florida has no solar shade laws and in addition, historically sides with property owners on issues similar to this. The homeowner is now campaigning for solar access legislation, but in the meantime he was forced to wait and see what happens with his own installation, holding on to the hope that the trees won’t grow as tall as he thinks.

Know Before You Install

With all these scary stories, you might be a little worried now to install solar. What if you neighbors plant huge trees right after you install solar? As a homeowner, what can you do to prevent a terrible situation like these?

First off, know your state and city laws. If there are solar access laws, see if the law also protects your solar installations from shading. Also check if the law provides legal protection from trees regardless of when they were planted or only those trees planted after the solar was installed. If you don’t have solar access laws, can you use nuisance laws for blocking sunlight? Are there any legal precedents that make you think it’s feasible?

Most importantly though, plan your solar installation accordingly. Talk to your neighbors before your installation to see if they have any plans to plant any trees in the future. If they do and it might be an issue, try to work together to find some alternatives. Your solar company will also help point out any trees or shrubs that could shade your solar panels in the future and if they are on your property, tell you where and how much to trim.

Now that the solar industry has experience with shading issues, we better know how to prepare for these situations. With thorough planning and good working relationships with neighbors, it doesn’t have to be solar vs. trees. Your yard can enjoy solar and trees.

  • by Ryan Austin
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  • October 7, 2016