July 25, 2024

This coverage is made possible through a partnership with Grist and Interlochen Public Radio in Northern Michigan.

People looking to install solar panels on their roofs have a lot to consider: sunlight, cost, and coordination with contractors and utilities. Tens of millions of people across the country should also think about their homeowners association.

In Michigan, a new law aims to remove that barrier by telling homeowner associations, or HOAs, to allow rooftop solar.

The Homeowners Energy Policy Act was signed into law by Governor Gretchen Whitmer on Monday.

“We wanted to find a way to … empower homeowners to make those decisions themselves,” said Ranjeev Puri, a Democratic state representative from Canton Township in southeast Michigan and the bill’s lead sponsor. “I think it’s an important step for a lot of people.”

The law gives many HOA members the power to install rooftop solar and a variety of other energy-saving measures, from laundry lines to heat pumps. HOAs also must adopt a solar policy within a year, and they cannot enforce standards that increase installation costs by more than $1,000 or reduce energy output by more than 10 percent.

It does not apply to shared rooftops and common areas, so multi-family housing and some apartments are not affected by the legislation.

HOAs become increasing general; over 75 million people belong to one, according to the Foundation for Community Association Research.

Supporters say Michigan’s new law is a step toward making rooftop solar more accessible to many of the 1.4 million HOA members in Michigan.

“We thought this was a very important bill because there are thousands of homeowner associations across the state,” said John Freeman, the executive director of the Great Lakes Renewable Energy Association. “From our point of view, it was completely absurd that … by moving into a neighborhood governed by a homeowners association agreement, that homeowners would not be able to install rooftop solar to generate their own electricity and help does not decrease. carbon pollution.”

Michigan is left behind in general solar power capacity, comes 26th in the country. With this legislation, it joins more than two dozen other states that have some form of “solar access laws,” including neighbors like Illinois and Wisconsinwhich aims to dominate an association’s say about solar power in their community.

HOAs generally seek to maintain a neighborhood’s property value by implementing and enforcing rules, called codes, covenants and restrictions. Along with providing maintenance and other services, HOAs can use these rules to shape a neighborhood’s aesthetics, such as requiring houses to be a certain color or gardens to look a certain way. Violations can result in fines or even negative.

And their rules can prevent people follow climate-friendly practices, such as planting native species and switching to more sustainable energy systems, which add to the logistical and financial barriers to residential solar.

Dan Kramer, a professor of biology at Michigan State University, co-authored a 2022 study in the journal Landscape and Urban Planning on how homeowners associations are hindering — and helping — sustainable residential development in mid-Michigan.

“These can be bridges to more sustainable residential development rather than barriers, as they are now,” he said. “And it just takes a little bit of change, I think, of perception and maybe a little bit more open thinking on the part of HOAs.”

Kramer started researching HOAs because he wanted to build a house in mid-Michigan, something small and energy-efficient with renewable energy and no big, grass-covered lawn.

“I kept running into the problem of my house being too small, or my plan to use solar panels or my plan to do the landscaping I wanted was unacceptable to the HOA, so I’ll just have to keep looking,” he said. “This happened repeatedly in my own kind of personal search for land to build a house.”

Some HOAs do support sustainability efforts. For example, associations in Arizona promoted desert-friendly landscaping and regulated water use. But Kramer said the cases they reviewed in mid-Michigan were rare.

“I don’t think that HOAs have any kind of anti-environmental or anti-sustainability agenda,” he said. “I think it’s really more tied to the idea of ​​a neat and tidy neighborhood. And it’s related to home value.”

Opponents of the new law worry that it erodes the rights of an association to determine what happens in their community. This includes the Community Associations Institute, a national organization that advocates for HOA interests.

Attorney Matt Heron, a co-chair of the institute’s Michigan branchsaid the law could also make maintenance and repair of roofs more difficult.

“You’re going to have communities that could lose their insurance because they’re not going to have the ability to insure everything,” he said. He believes it would have been better to encourage energy efficiency measures rather than mandate them.

Under the law, HOAs do have some say in these projects, such as limiting their height and appearance on the roof. And some associations have already accommodated solar power, such as the Ashland Park No. 1 Association in Traverse City, which has been working to get a system in place for residents who want solar panels.

“We just didn’t think it was a smart move to try to limit people now, when the government … is trying to push renewable energy,” said Ben Brower, the association’s president. Brower said they’re going to pay close attention to what they still have control of moving forward: “We don’t want it to rust or make the property look bad and hurt the values ​​of the neighboring properties.”

The landscape for solar in Michigan is changing; last November, the state passed a law requiring all its electricity to come from “clean” sources by 2040, and it is now allow more people to sell electricity from residential solar back to utilities. Federal incentives also helped make it more so affordable.

Michigan is “playing a lot of catch up” in solar, said Allan O’Shea, the CEO of CBS Solar, a solar installation company based in the northern Michigan town of Copemish. He has worked in the solar industry for decades, and while he has had good experiences with associations, there have also been problems.

“We had a problem where they actually passed a new law in the middle of [the process] to prevent solar energy from entering. And that’s fighting,” he said. “Not so much for us because we had to walk away from the project, but it really damaged the homeowner, the condo owner.”

For O’Shea, this law is part of that change; some of the customers who cannot install solar due to HOA restrictions are planning to take up their project again.

“It’s going to continue to normalize solar energy as another form, another power source that needs to be left in the mix,” he said.

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