Western Pa. municipalities set rules to avert residential flare-ups over solar panels

| Wednesday, Nov. 6, 2013, 9:01 p.m.

Municipalities trying to stay ahead of the growing demand for residential solar panels are implementing new ordinances to regulate their use.

Of the 24 municipalities in Allegheny and Beaver counties that participated in a grant program to establish a model solar energy ordinance last year, at least six have adopted new policies, said Evan Endres, project coordinator with the PennFuture Energy Center, which promotes solar and other forms of clean energy.

“Solar energy is new to a lot of municipalities,” Endres said. “Up to four years ago, a municipality never saw a resident coming to the permit counter with the desire to install solar panels. … This provided a framework.”

Richland Manager Dean Bastianini said the solar ordinance scheduled for a public hearing this week defines solar installations and establishes regulations for what is allowed, while minimizing the impact to adjacent properties.

According to a PennFuture map of residential solar installations, there is at least one in Richland.

“They're not extensive, but we think we're going to see more in the future,” Bastianini said. “We were trying to be proactive in having regulations in place so we can anticipate what issues might be there before then.”

Residents in a historic Sewickley neighborhood recently complained to borough officials about the approval process and installation of solar panels at a home on Henry Avenue. In response, the borough's historic review commission has been charged with providing guidelines for such installations.

“Different communities have done different things across the U.S.,” borough Manager Kevin Flannery said. “I think they're going to review all that and come up with a standard that works in a historic district.”

Ian Smith, a solar energy consultant with Robinson-based Energy Independent Solutions, said dealing with complaints from neighbors is the exception, not the rule, when it comes to solar installations.

“I have dozens of clients and their panels are visible,” said Smith, a Wilkinsburg resident who has solar panels on his home. “I don't know of any of mine that have gotten complaints from neighbors. I do know that happens occasionally, but it's very rare.

“We're paying attention to the aesthetics of the system and paying attention to things like clean lines. It's generally not an issue.”

University of Pittsburgh professor Amro El-Jaroudi said his Scott neighbors were curious about the solar panels he had installed about three years ago.

“They all came and asked about the monetary aspects and how much electricity was saved,” El-Jaroudi said. “It's hard to tell we have solar panels. They're dark on a dark roof. And they don't face the street, they face the yard.”

An electrical engineering professor, El-Jaroudi said he's always had an interest in alternative energy. He said his wife refers to his decision to add the panels as his “mid-life crisis.”

“It was a worthwhile investment as opposed to a red sports car or something,” El-Jaroudi said. “In terms of getting our money back, we're probably about a third of the way there.”

El-Jaroudi said Maryland-based Astrum Solar handled all the permitting issues with the township, the electric company and the state tax credits when he hired them to install the system.

That can be challenging because there are inconsistent rules from one municipality to the next, Smith said.

“There's many cases where they don't have established rules because it's the first time they're seeing this,” Smith said. “Sometimes the problem is just the lack of rules and the delays that go along with trying to figure out how they should handle it.”

Margaret Harding is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-380-8519 or mharding@tribweb.com.

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