Your God Given Right To Be An Asshole

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With a title like that, I must be talking about … solar panels. Wait, what?

One of the unique things about Rancho Santa Fe is its country look and feel. We are a stone’s throw away from urban areas, yet our meandering streets generally offer only glimpses of the occasional house. Views into properties are mostly obscured by vegetation.

This isn’t by accident. Because we are an HOA, we enforce compliance with a series of rules and regulations that mandate view screening.

Over the years, California lawmakers have passed laws that limit what an HOA can prohibit. For solar panels, our one-size-fits-all legislature has mandated that HOAs cannot restrict the size and placement of solar panel arrays if it would cost more than $1,000 for an alternative design. In practice, this means that HOAs are at the mercy of homeowners to exercise good judgement.

The Problem

Thankfully not in Rancho Santa Fe … yet.

As electrical prices continue to escalate, more and more people are installing solar panel arrays, and some of these arrays are poorly screened meaning you can plainly see them from your house, or while driving, or while recreating. This is especially problematic for arrays on hillsides or ones that have hundreds of panels. They are literally ruining the character and look and feel of Rancho Santa Fe.

Why Have Solar Panels?

There are three reasons for installing solar panels. Cost savings, backup power, and environmental concerns.

Over their rated lifetimes a solar system can reduce your overall electric costs by about 70% if you size your system to match your usage. Put another way, cost break even is around six years for the entire capital cost of the system (that includes a 20 year lifetime, inverter replacement after it dies in 12 years, maintenance, total install costs, interest on that money, declining solar output as panels age, etc.). 

If you shell out extra for battery storage systems, then a solar system can act as a short term backup power system. It is usually not cost effective to purchase enough batteries to deliver power through a long period of no sun like we are having now (winter days are short). Usually a battery backup system will last during the day and into the early or late evening depending on whether it is winter or summer. To fully bridge a multi day outage such as some of us have during Santa Ana conditions, then a natural gas or propane powered whole house generator will be both significantly cheaper and work better.

CA Energy Generation Sources, 2019

Some people install solar arrays for environmental reasons. There is no doubt that solar panels are a cleaner way of generating electricity, but be aware that California’s electric grid is mostly green and clean as it is. In 2019, only 40% of CA’s electricity was generated via coal (3%) or natural gas (37%), the rest from green or renewable energy sources (data source for chart).

How Much Are Aesthetics Worth?

I find it kind of funny that people spend millions of dollars for gorgeous houses, and then spoil their views (or their neighbor’s) to save $10K or $20K a year. Saving money shouldn’t be the ultimate goal in life, especially for people who can afford large mansions. Aesthetics obviously matter or else you’d make do with smaller estate.

I’ve seen some estates with huge 200+ solar panel arrays. If you’re doing this for environmental reasons, please consider how much electricity you’re using because that’s a lot of electricity for one family. Spending money on electricity savings efforts (examples below) would be cheaper and overall better for everyone.

Mitigating the Solar Panel Explosion

So, back to the headline in this article. Yes, California law allows you to be whatever you want to be, but let me make a plea here as a neighbor and fellow resident. Please think hard about how your solar panel system will impact the neighborhood before you design it. Here are some things to think about.

  1. Do you even need solar panels at all? One way to purely save money is to purchase an electric vehicle which will allow you to use Time Of Use rates – that alone saved me 37% on my electric bill and I didn’t have to do anything other than submit a form. However, do note that all new house construction must have a solar system per CA law.

  2. Before designing a system, please work on reducing your electric consumption which will allow you to install a smaller system. Big ways to save electricity:
    1. Reduce landscape lighting – place them on switches or motion controls. 
    2. Reduce time when fountains run.
    3. Install HVAC controllers that only turn on when a seldom used area of the house gets triggered via motion control or light switch.
    4. Replace electric hot water heater(s) with natural gas or propane.
    5. If you haven’t used your pool for a year, consider removing it. Pool pumps use a lot of electricity.
  3. Please use high output solar panels that generate more electricity per panel. While these cost more, your system size will be smaller and have less impact.

  4. This system, as seen from a neighbor’s front drive, should have side bushes to act as screening. It could also have been built in two lines rather than one flat array to reduce height which would have made side bush screening easier and more effective.
    Please pay attention to neighbor, street, across the valley, etc. views of your solar panels. Please ask your solar installer and/or Association solar consultant for help in mitigating off site views of your panels.

  5. Don’t put a solar system to bid without also asking  that critical views should be mitigated. Left to themselves, solar installers will recommend the cheapest solution, which will likely also be the ugliest.

  6. If designing a new house, ask your architect about hiding panels in a flat roof element. I have seen designs where the house has a typical Spanish tile roof, but at an
    One way to hide solar panels in new construction.
    appropriate point in the roof, it goes down into a hidden flat roof for solar placement (see diagram).
     
  7. Please consider installing a smaller system to preserve site aesthetics and future use. Remember that panels should be installed with an expected lifetime of at least twenty years, so you are locking up a portion of your land for a long time with a ground mount system.

Conclusion

During the November 5th Board meeting, the Association voted to circulate a revised solar regulation. It recognizes the primacy of CA law that gives homeowners wide leeway when installing a solar system. Hopefully people won’t take this as a carte blanche ability to do whatever the lowest priced solar bidder advises them to do. Please think of the neighborhood when designing your solar system. We will all thank you!