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Solar Panel Boom Pits Neighbor against Neighbor

Shiny photovoltaics don't always fit the vision homeowners have for their neighborhoods



Mulad, courtesy Flickr

For 33 years, Barbara Katz has enjoyed sitting with her husband and gazing into the backyard of their hilltop home, located in an area of historic houses in north Baltimore. She loves the neighborhood for its quiet charm and takes pleasure in the numerous foxes, birds and deer that roam outside her window.

Then, last month, she found a notice in her mailbox that threatened to change all that: The neighbors wanted to put in an array of solar panels just beyond her back fence.

"My initial reaction was, 'Oh my gosh, this is going to be an eyesore,'" remembers Katz, who was confronted by a plan for more than 600 ground-based solar panels on her neighbors' lawn. "No one would want this in their backyard. It looks like it's an industrial park."

It takes a good deal of work -- and regulations -- to keep suburban communities looking picture perfect, and arrays of shiny solar panels don't always fit the vision homeowners have for their neighborhoods. All over the country, citizens like Katz have begun organizing to block renewable energy projects, throwing a wrench into some peoples' plans to "go green."

The U.S. solar industry saw record-breaking growth last year, and residential installations played a significant role, increasing by 21 percent in the third quarter of 2011, according to the most recent data from the "U.S. Solar Market Insight" quarterly report (Greenwire, Dec. 14, 2011). Government incentives, fluctuating electricity bills and the declining cost of solar panels are believed to have contributed to the boom. This is good news for the environment, but an annoyance for residents who are invested in keeping up the traditional appearances of their surroundings.

Historically, so-called NIMBY (or "not in my backyard") fights have been waged to keep large-scale projects, such as landfills or major power lines, out of neighborhoods. But now these battles are spreading to things like wind farms and residential solar arrays, which have often already been installed.

Homeowners vs. homeowner

"I've dealt with many homeowners associations, and a lot of them like to throw their weight around and tell people what they can do," said Justin Daily, a designer and consultant for Advanced Energy Systems, a major solar installation company in Oregon. "Someone's roof looking slightly different is a small compromise, in my opinion. It's much different than painting your house yellow polka dots."

In the historic district of Mount Washington in Baltimore, Katz and other homeowners have started a petition to prevent their neighbors -- who operate a nonprofit in a cluster of residential, hilltop homes -- from installing solar panels on their lawn. The organization, Chimes International Ltd., provides housing and services for the disabled and says it wants to cut utility costs.

"For us, it's essentially a business decision," said Martin Lampner, the president and CEO of Chimes. His organization has been trying to increase the energy efficiency of its buildings for the last seven years by weatherizing structures and upgrading appliances. Lampner says solar panels, which have already been installed at the company's headquarters in Baltimore, are a natural next step for its houses in Mount Washington.

The proposed solar array would be located on a grassy area away from the road, but would still be visible to a handful of neighbors. Lampner realized there could be opposition and decided to get feedback from the community association before completing plans or applying for permits. It didn't take long for criticism to pour in.

"I've heard everything at this point," said Ira Kolman, president of the Mount Washington Improvement Association. Some people didn't want a handful of trees on the property cut down -- a necessary step for installing the panels. Others said the solar array might worsen a water runoff problem in the area. Several believed a lawn-based installation would cover up too much valuable green space. And a few neighbors, like Katz, simply didn't want to look out their windows and see a "solar panel sea."

A particular backyard view

"The whole backside of my house faces that -- the kitchen, dining room, living room, bathroom and a lovely cut stone patio," said Katz, who believes the panels would also destroy the ecosystem of birds and animals that pass through her yard. "The neighborhood is not opposed to renewable energy and being green," she explained. "Folks who have signed the petition are doing so because they feel it will lower the property value of their homes."

Many states have "solar/wind access" policies that protect homeowners' rights to install renewable solar or wind systems on their property; however, the bylaws of homeowners associations and historic districts often overrule them.

Despite Colorado's having such a law, Aspen residents are required to notify their neighbors before installing any solar array larger than 200 square feet -- barely half the size of a small rooftop. Homeowners are then subject to public hearings and could pay up to $500 for a residential solar review. The regulations were adopted by Pitkin County last summer, after a family 15 miles north of Aspen, in Snowmass, complained about a blinding glare reflecting off their neighbor's panels.

"When I saw pictures, it was really bad," admitted Mike Tierney, the owner of a local installation company, Aspen Solar. "It would be tough if it was my house and I had to look at it every day." He said the regulations, which create extra paperwork and expense for his customers, have already taken a toll on his business.

Scientists and architects are constantly looking for smarter ways to use solar technology, which could soon make aesthetic problems, like glare, a thing of the past.

Solar shingles are one example of building integrated photovoltaics (BIPV) that is already on the market. In their current state, shingles are less energy-efficient than panels and can be pricey to install, but manufacturers are rapidly solving those problems. Dow Chemical Co. is building a new plant this year that plans to produce shingles at a 10 to 15 percent lower cost than conventional panels.

Coming: solar shingles, windows and paint

The startup company Pythagoras Solar began testing solar window technology in Chicago's Willis Tower (formerly the Sears Tower) last year. It installed a small double-pane window embedded with solar cells, and, if all goes well, the tower's owners plan to expand the project to cover the entire south face of the building. A Norwegian company, EnSol, is also developing a solar window that requires a thin film to be applied to glass. Its website says it hopes to bring the product to market by 2016.

It's a long way off, but a handful of scientists have even developed solar paint. Researchers at the University of Notre Dame published a paper in the journal ACS Nano last month, describing a photovoltaic paint they created using semiconducting nanoparticles. They call it "Sun-Believable."

Ted Sargent, Canada research chair in nanotechnology at University of Toronto, is another pioneer of solar paint. His technology was recently awarded a $10 million licensing deal with the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia and can harness 6 percent of the sun's energy, which is 5 percent more than can be captured by Sun-Believable. These paints lag behind the 15 percent efficiency of standard solar panels, while shingles boast a modest 10 percent.

For now, many homeowners are turning to all-black designer panels, which lack the bulky silver frame and bluish tint of traditional models, allowing them to blend more easily into black roofing.

But Daily, who has witnessed numerous run-ins between neighbors during his time in the solar installation industry, says the real issue isn't always about aesthetics.

"People who are conservative are sometimes anti-green," he said. "Do people complain about their neighbors' windows reflecting into their living room? Or the surface of their swimming pool? They latch onto anything they can to complain about it."

Homeowners who want to install a solar system shouldn't assume their neighbors will accept it, says Kolman. He believes it's essential that people contact their local community association, get the word out, and hold a public meeting before installing a single panel. "I commend the Chimes for doing it the right way. They came to us first," he said. "That's how we've got to do things across the country."

Lampner says the solar panels, which could potentially save the nonprofit more than $20,000 a year, are not worth a fight with neighbors. If too many residents are opposed, he agrees the project should not move forward. "These are people's homes. For most people, it's their biggest single asset. They are justifiably defensive of it."

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. www.eenews.net, 202-628-6500

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