Solar Power Regulations

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Interest in solar power has grown in recent months along with concerns over greenhouse gas emissions and climate change. While there are multiple programs at the federal, state and local levels to assist in solar power development and installation, there are also multiple regulations. The major regulatory issues related to solar power include how a solar power system is connected to the grid, how solar-generated electricity is banked on the grid, who is certified to install solar power and who can allow or prohibit solar power installations on a residential site.

Connecting to the Grid

  • More than two-dozen states have comprehensive rules regulating the interconnection to the electric grid of solar energy or other energy systems located on a customer's site. The standards typically differentiate between small and large power generating systems. For example, an owner of a small, 5-kilowatt solar-power system for a home would face a shorter, less expensive application and approval process than an owner of a 10-megawatt system that might power an industrial business. The standards also limit the requirements that utilities can impose on those seeking to interconnect a customer-owned solar system.

Net Metering

  • Net metering refers to the ability to "bank" excess power generated by a solar power system in the form of kilowatt-hour credits. For example, when a homeowner's solar power system generates more energy than currently used in the home, then a two-directional meter would send the excess power to the grid and the homeowner would receive a credit on his bill for that excess power. More than 40 states have net metering policies, which are established by state legislatures and implemented by state public utility commissions.

Licensing and Certification of Installation Contractors

  • Just as states require electricians and plumbers to be licensed, solar contractors are required to be licensed in approximately 10 states. In addition, certain financial incentives programs at the state and local level require installers to be licensed or certified. The North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners provides independent certification for photovoltaic and solar thermal system installers.

Other Regulations that May Impact a Residential Solar System

  • Existing homeowner association rules or local laws also may impact the installation and ongoing operation of a solar system. About a dozen states have solar rights laws, which prohibit these types of restrictions.

    To further encourage the installation of solar power systems, more than 25 states authorize solar easements. Solar easements are legal agreements that protect a property owner's right to access sunlight. For example, an adjoining property owner could be restricted from building additional stories onto a home in order to preserve sunlight access for a solar power system.

Federal Actions Related to Solar Power

  • While the majority of the regulations related to solar power installations are at local and state levels, there are federal actions that impact solar power generation and development. For example, the U.S. Treasury, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy administer programs that provide grants, financial assistance and, in some cases, guidelines for the development and installation of solar power systems. As a result, these programs can influence future regulatory developments at the state and local level.

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