Do You Have a Right to Sunlight?

Neighbors and Solar

Imagine you spend about $10,000 for a 3-kW solar photovoltaic (PV) system – the size needed for an average family – and your neighbor to the east adds a second story to his garage.

The addition is designed for offspring who will perhaps never leave home, but it shades your new solar panels. It’s not too bad in summer, but in winter it blocks all but an hour of late morning sun. You would have been better off taking that two-week vacation in Jamaica or Cabo San Lucas.

“Don’t people need building permits anymore?” you complain to your spouse. In fact, in many places across the United States, they don’t. But that situation is changing rapidly, as more and more homeowners capitalize on the fact that solar energy, per watt, now costs as little as $3.26.

Costs aside, your 3kW solar PV array, in its first year of operation, provided you with almost enough electricity to run your household (except for your offspring’s 4K gaming and HD computer, which runs 24/7).  On sunny days in midsummer, it produced enough excess electricity that you sold some back to your utility, in a contract called “net metering”.

All that went away when the garage addition went up, and now it’s up to you to find a way to recoup some of your “stranded” costs. You have a lawyer, of course, but he seems as stymied as you are. His best advice for you so far – i.e., $500 in – is that you should have checked with your local or statewide building department  In fact, these two sources are your only legal recourse, since no federal common-law legal right to unobstructed light from adjoining land exists.

There are several avenues potential solar energy buyers can investigate. In California, where the sun shines almost all the time, there are zoning rules that require new buildings, building additions – even newly planted tall trees, to be situated and oriented in very specific ways so as to protect solar access for adjacent properties.

These solar easements can only be used to benefit solar electricity or hot water installations. Other provisions of the California law require a written description of the size of the easement, the type of solar array, restrictions placed upon structures or vegetation which might block sunlight, and the terms under which the easement may be revised or terminated, if any.

California drafted its first solar easement law in 1978, and is still ahead of the pack in almost every other environmental respect. More recently, the state has found itself generating so much excess solar energy that it has to pay other states to take it! Proof, if you need it, that one can have too much of a good thing.

These solar easements  (as distinct from solar rights, which govern solar panels per homeowner association covenants, for example, or per local government rules and building codes) are exemplified by the City of Gainesville (Florida), Hawaii, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New Mexico, Ashland (Oregon), the Virgin Islands, and the state of Wisconsin.

Other states with solar easements include:

  • Georgia
  • Idaho
  • Iowa
  • Kansas
  • Kentucky
  • Minnesota
  • Montana
  • Nebraska
  • Nevada
  • New Hampshire
  • New York
  • North Dakota
  • Ohio
  • Tennessee
  • Texas
  • Utah

States with both solar easements and solar rights provisions include:

  • Washington
  • California
  • Nevada
  • Colorado
  • Missouri
  • Indiana
  • Maine
  • Virginia
  • Maryland

For further information about solar easements, visit the Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency, commonly known as DSIRE. Or visit the Solar Energy Industries Association, SEIA.