New Michigan law requires homeowners associations to allow rooftop solar

This coverage is made possible through a partnership between IPR and Grist, a nonprofit environmental media organization.

People who want to install solar panels on their roofs have to consider a lot: sunlight, cost, and coordinating with contractors and utilities.

Tens of millions of people across the country also have to think about their homeowners association.

In Michigan, a new law aims to remove that barrier by telling those associations they have to allow rooftop solar.

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

“We wanted to find a way to … empower homeowners to make those decisions themselves,” said state Rep. Ranjeev Puri (D-Canton), the bill’s main sponsor. “I think that this is an important step for a lot of people.”

The law gives many HOA members the power to install rooftop solar and an array of other energy savings measures, from clotheslines to EV charging equipment to heat pumps. It requires HOAs to adopt a solar energy policy within a year.

And they can’t enforce standards that increase installation costs by more than $1,000 or decrease energy output by more than 10 percent. The law is geared toward single-family homes, and doesn’t apply to shared roofs and common areas.

Supporters say it’s a step toward making rooftop solar and other energy efficiency measures more accessible to many in Michigan who belong to an HOA.

“We thought that this was a very important bill, because there are thousands of homeowners 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 which is governed by a homeowners association’s agreement, that homeowners would not be able to install solar on the roof in order to generate their own electricity and to help reduce carbon pollution.”

Among others

With the new law, Michigan joins over two dozen other states that have some form of “solar access laws,” including neighbors like Illinois and Wisconsin, which aim to reign in an association’s say over solar in their community.

Homeowners associations generally seek to maintain a neighborhood’s property value by enacting and enforcing various rules, called codes, covenants, and restrictions. Along with providing maintenance and other services, HOAs can use these rules to shape a neighborhood’s aesthetic, like requiring houses to be a certain color or that gardens look a certain way. Violations could result in fines or even foreclosure.

And their rules can prevent people from pursuing climate friendly practices, like planting native species and switching to more sustainable energy systems, adding to the logistical and financial barriers to residential solar.

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

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

Kramer started researching HOAs because he had wanted to build a house in mid-Michigan, something small and energy efficient with renewable energy and native plants instead of a big green lawn.

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

Kramer’s case isn’t unique.

HOA concerns

HOAs are becoming increasingly common across the country, and in Michigan roughly 1.4 million people belong to an association, according to the Foundation for Community Association Institute.

Some HOAs do support sustainability efforts. For instance, associations in Arizona have promoted desert-friendly landscaping and regulated water use. But Kramer said the cases they found 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 really is more tied to the idea of a neat and tidy neighborhood. And that’s related to home value.”

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

Attorney Matt Heron, a co-chair of the institute’s Michigan branch, said the law could also complicate maintenance and repair of roofs.

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

Under the new law HOAs do have some say in these projects, like limiting the panels’ height. And some associations were already accommodating solar, like the Ashland Park No. 1 Association in Traverse City, which has worked to get a system in place for residents that want solar panels.

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

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

“We had an issue where they actually adopted a new law in the middle of [the process] to prevent solar from going in. And those are fighting words,” 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.”

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

For O’Shea, this new law is part of that change; some of his customers that were unable to install solar because of HOA restrictions are planning to get back to it.

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

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