Planning and zoning for solar energy readiness: A hot proposition, Part 1

Solar energy systems are increasingly common around the nation. Local governments can help this technology expand through proactive planning and reasonable regulation.

Annual average daily solar resource in watt-hours per square meter per day (Wh/m2/day). Photo credit: National Renewable Energy Laboratory and MSU Land Policy Institute
Annual average daily solar resource in watt-hours per square meter per day (Wh/m2/day). Photo credit: National Renewable Energy Laboratory and MSU Land Policy Institute

Solar energy is hot, but it’s not just the photons. The solar energy market continues to boom with decreasing costs and increasing use of leases and third party ownership of systems. In Michigan, there were at least 1,300 installed solar energy systems according to the Michigan Public Service Commission as of December 2013.”

There is a role and responsibility for local governments in enabling installation of this technology and even incentivizing its use. There are two basic mechanisms through which local governments in Michigan can accomplish this – the master plan and the zoning ordinance.

The master plan sets a community vision for the future with details goals, objectives and specific policies to make that vision a reality. The community master plan is a formal statement of various policies that the community is committed to implementing or achieving. It is the perfect document for establishing a future vision of widespread installation and solar energy consumption among public and private entities. The master plan accomplishes this by taking the solar resources in the community into account and detailing data and policies to guide community decisions.

In Michigan and other northern latitudes, the amount of solar resource is not ideal. However, when sited properly, it is more than sufficient for producing electricity (photovoltaics) or heating (solar thermal) for the majority of the year. So, the master plan would document the solar resource in general (like the map at right) and describe the siting considerations for maximizing solar potential. This would include specific policies related to solar access, street and building orientation for new development and recommended locations for installation of larger solar arrays.

With the vision, goals and policies established in the master plan through broad public engagement, it is the zoning ordinance (and possibly other development regulations) that decides the legal standards (and possibly incentives) for public and private entities to follow when building solar energy systems. Generally, zoning for solar systems includes considering solar access, siting of new construction, setbacks, permitting and aesthetics.

Solar access is the concept of protecting a property owner’s right to make use of the sun’s energy that is accessible. Property owners don’t want to be shaded-out by structures on a neighboring property. In portions of the community that are already developed, one approach is to allow property owners to apply for a solar access permit (e.g. see City of Tecumseh, MI), which establishes a right to solar access for a planned system and prohibits neighbors from blocking the solar resource with new construction or vegetation. In undeveloped areas of the community, development regulations could require that developers orient streets, lots and buildings. The goal of this is to ensure that there is a location on each lot where there is access to solar resources without casting too much of a shadow on another structure. Flexibility could be arranged to protect certain site characteristics, such as topography and natural resources.

Clearly there are some policy decisions to be made with respect to solar access. During the planning process is when those options should be discussed. Specific policy decisions in the master plan are then implemented with language added to the zoning ordinance (and possibly subdivision ordinance).

Part 2 of this Michigan State University Extension article describes additional zoning provisions to enable and incentivize installation of solar energy systems in a community.

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