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Officials create rules for residents who want to harness solar energy in Richland

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Paul and Lena Lyle’s solar energy system at their Richland home.

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Paul and Lena Lyle of Richland currently claim the township's only backyard solar energy system.

The Lyles bought the system — a rectangular array of ground-mounted solar panels — about three and a half years ago after they met a vendor at a home show.

They installed the system through Energy Independent Solutions of McKees Rocks.

“We generate probably 30 to 40 percent of our electricity through that,” said Paul Lyle, a plumber. “It's been working pretty well for us.”

The Lyles' solar energy system sits on a treeless, south-facing slope behind the couple's 100-plus-year-old farmhouse on 3.5 acres next to the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

They spent about $25,000 for the system, after receiving federal tax credit and state grant money.

“It's tied directly into the house's electric system,” Lyle said. “When that's not enough, it draws from the public grid.”

Lyle and his wife, a business analyst, still rely on Duquesne Light Co. to fully satisfy power needs of their all-electric home.

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Richland officials recently enacted rules for property owners who want to harness sunlight to heat and otherwise power their homes and businesses.

The new guidelines regulate the installation of solar energy systems as accessory uses in all Richland zoning districts.

“These (rules) are just for an accessory (use) — not to build a power plant,” said Charles Means, solicitor for Richland Township.

Richland supervisors unanimously approved the regulations after a Nov. 6 public hearing.

No one spoke in support or opposition to the ordinance, which amends Richland's zoning code.

Property owners now must get permission to install a solar energy system.

“You need a permit. You can't just say, ‘I think I'd like to have one,'” Means said.

The township's zoning department will process and issue permits, said Dean Bastianini, township manager.

Chatham University, which plans to use solar power on its Eden Hall campus in Richland, is among expected applicants for such permits.

The new ordinance sets forth rules for both ground-mounted and building-mounted solar energy systems.

Ground-mounted systems must meet the same setback requirements that apply to structures served by the systems.

“If the setback requirement is 10 feet, you can't put it (a solar energy system) any closer than 10 feet from the property line,” Means said. “If you're going to stick it in your front yard, in front of your house, then you have extra restrictions.

“You have to show that you've made an effort to screen this thing with either plants, or a wall, or landscaping, so you don't have 50 foot of glass panels sticking up in your front yard.”

Solar energy systems mounted on buildings “shall be permitted to extend up to six feet above the roof,” states the ordinance.

The ordinance sets 4-foot and 8-foot height limits for ground-mounted solar energy systems, depending on whether panels are installed at the rear or front of a principal structure.

“If you want to put panels on the ground, you have a height limit you have to worry about,” Means said.

The new ordinance prohibits advertising on solar panels.

“You can't put signs on these things,” Means said. “They're not supposed to be billboards.”

Means helped draft a model ordinance on solar panel installations for use by other Pennsylvania municipalities, as part of a project administered by the nonprofit PennFuture Energy Center.

“This was revised to work here in Richland,” Means said.

Richland enacted the ordinance “to avoid what's going on in other places, where there are arguments, debates and controversies because there is no set of rules and nobody knows what the rules are,” Means said.

“Now we have a set of rules and people can follow them with some confidence.”

Deborah Deasy is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-772-6369 or ddeasy@tribweb.com.

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