Solar energy meets the dark side
CARBONDALE ” The sun isn’t shining so brightly in some parts of the Roaring Fork Valley these days.
A surging number of residents are tapping the sun for energy to heat and light their homes, but pockets of resistance have sprouted in subdivisions from Aspen to New Castle, according to experts in the field.
Some homeowners associations have adopted restrictions that make it more costly or even impossible for members to install solar electric or thermal devices, despite a Colorado law barring such limits.
“It’s just going to take time to change the way people look at things,” said Paul Puhr, a partner in the Carbondale-based Grounded Renewable Energy, which installs solar electric systems, also known as photovoltaic.
Puhr estimated that about 15 percent of his firm’s clients meet resistance from their homeowners’ associations. The problem is nearly always based on aesthetics, he said. Often, homeowners will give up rather than risk a fight with a board that exerts heavy control on other architectural issues.
“People are often already cowed by the process they’ve already been through.” he said.
Rachel Connor, an instructor and curriculum developer at Carbondale’s Solar Energy International, said society has determined that solar panels are “ugly.”
Although that view is slowly evolving as more people turn to the sun for energy, Connor foresees an increase in solar showdowns before there is a societal change of attitude.
“I think it’s going to be a bigger issue before we see it die out,” she said.
Connor has experienced what she perceives as a bias against solar power, both personally and professionally. She and her husband thought they found the ideal place for their dream house in Elk Springs subdivision near the Spring Valley Campus of Colorado Mountain College earlier this year. While preparing to close the deal, she met with a representative of the homeowners association and discussed her plans for a solar thermal system. She was convinced she could meet all the requirements. Their solar panels would be flush mounted to the roof and nonreflective.
Connor closed on the lot and submitted a development plan that was rejected by the homeowners association on grounds that the panels were visible from the subdivision road. The panels were on the south side of the roof, where they need to be located to absorb the most sunlight. The only way the association would accept the system is if it was on the north side of the roof, out of view.
Connor claimed she was met with “hostility” when she attempted to reason with members of the homeowners association. She and her husband decided on principle against giving up on solar and building there.
As part of her duties with SEI, a highly-acclaimed nonprofit organization that promotes conservation and alternative energy, Connor evaluates house sites for the most effective construction of solar electric and thermal systems. Through that work, she’s become aware that the Lakota Canyon subdivision in New Castle has an outright ban on such systems.
Homeowners also have encountered problems getting systems approved in the subdivision of multi-million dollar houses at the base of Aspen Highlands. The homeowners association there was trying to force a homeowner to rebuild his approved system when some members opposed the final product.
Connor said she was aware of a situation in Carbondale where a homeowner who installed solar panels was criticized by a neighbor for environmental activism. “The neighbor said, ‘I don’t want to wake up every day and look at your political statement,'” she said.
Connor is frustrated because she feels the surge of popularity of solar electric and thermal systems is part of a greater realization that energy must be conserved and global warming must be stemmed. The movement is hampered by people in control of homeowners associations who are more concerned about views.
“These decision makers have determined what the aesthetic is,” she said.
The surge in demand for solar systems is undeniable, despite views of decision makers. Holy Cross Energy, which serves a substantial part of the Roaring Fork Valley, started offering rebates to people who installed photovoltaic and other alternative energy systems in 2004. About $150,000 in rebates or incentives was offered by the company in 2006, said Steve Casey, member services supervisor. The utility budgeted $180,000 for rebates this year.
“Unbeknownst to us, consumers were going hog wild with solar,” he said.
The company had already issued $125,000 in rebates by the end of May. Solar installers like Puhr lobbied Holy Cross to increase the rebate fund. The Holy Cross board of directors boosted the rebate fund from $180,000 to $380,000 and even that amount will likely be drained, Casey said.
Puhr said the demand is growing dramatically in all corners of the Roaring Fork Valley. “Demand is good but the price is still a concern for people,” he said.
When homeowners associations require changes that make the systems even more expensive, it can snuff plans. Too few homeowners are aware of a Colorado law protecting their rights to install solar electric and thermal systems, Puhr said. Colorado statute C.R.S. 38-30-168 prohibits covenants that ban solar energy devices. It allows “reasonable aesthetic provisions” that do not significantly increase the cost of a device, Puhr said.
He said solar energy systems shouldn’t be a sacred cow. He had to alter his system at his home in a Missouri Heights subdivision. Puhr installed pole-mounted solar panels that track the sun as it drifts west. The system allegedly obscured the view of his neighbor, so Puhr made changes.
Everyone installing a system should meet a visual standard, he acknowledged, but reviews shouldn’t take months to complete or be designed to hassle a homeowner into abandoning plans.
“The short-term view problem is nothing compared to what we might face [with global warming],” Puhr said.
Scott Condon’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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