Throughout August, The Texas Tribune will feature 31 ways Texans' lives will change because of new laws that take effect Sept. 1. Check out our story calendar for more.
BASTROP – Nipendra Patel thought it made sense to put solar panels on the broad roof of the home he built more than 12 years ago. Unplugging from the electric grid would be good for the environment and save him money in the long run, he figured. And as an electrical engineer who completed a special program in solar design, he could build the system himself relatively cheaply.
So Patel drew the blueprints. He installed mounts on his roof. He calculated that he would break even in four or five years, no longer dealing with utility bills. But last December, he received a letter commanding him to “CEASE AND DESIST” from tinkering on his roof. It came from his homeowners association at The Colony, which feared the solar project would be an eyesore, out of bounds under community guidelines.
In many cases, Texas law limits the power of neighborhood associations to regulate or ban home solar power systems. But The Colony shut Patel's project down by slipping through a loophole in the law. Although the neighborhood is more than a decade old, the letter pointed out that it is still controlled by its developer — Forestar Group — and considered “within the development period” that has no end in sight.
This year, the Texas Legislature came to aid of those in Patel’s predicament. Senate Bill 1626 will close the loophole that allowed developers to keep solar power out of communities that keep “developing” for decades. The law, which takes effect Sept. 1, says developers of expanding neighborhoods larger than 50 homes may not ban solar devices.
“They cannot say 'no' anymore,” said Patel, standing in his front yard as the summer sun beat down on a roof pocked with mounting studs, but devoid of photovoltaic cells to soak up the rays.
Though small in scope, the new law, which sailed through the House and Senate, illustrates the state’s growing embrace of solar power after a relatively slow start. And as one of the top priorities for solar power advocates last legislative session, it also underscores a shift in strategies for solar power advocates in Texas and elsewhere, as improving technology drives down the cost of harnessing the sun’s energy.
“We’re not seeking new mandates or subsidies,” said Charlie Hemmeline, executive director of the Texas Solar Power Association, “but we do need to make sure that markets work effectively and that customers are empowered to make a real choice.”
Because of its size and intense radiation, Texas leads the nation in solar energy potential, but the solar industry has long struggled to get a foothold as policymakers have provided fewer incentives than other states. Solar energy currently makes up a tiny percentage of the state’s energy portfolio.
That’s beginning to change.
The state added roughly 129 megawatts of solar capacity in 2014, including about 15 megawatts at homes, reaching a total of 330 megawatts, according to GTM Research, an energy market research firm, commissioned by the Solar Energy Industries Association. Though still a far cry from California and a few much smaller states, Texas’ annual growth has increased almost sixfold since 2010.
(On average, a megawatt-hour of solar energy can power as many as 100 Texas homes for an hour on the hottest summer day. During average temperatures, it can power many times more.)
Many developing neighborhoods already welcome solar power installations, solar advocates and builders say. The Texas Tribune asked eight of the top-selling master-planned communities in Texas, as identified by John Burns Real Estate Consulting, a national firm, whether they allowed solar installations. Just two responded, but both – Cinco Ranch and The Woodlands, both in Houston – said they allowed such installations.
“Matter of fact, we even built a neighborhood with solar panels,” a representative with The Woodlands said.
Still, some developers and homeowners associations fear that solar might appear unsightly. In Patel’s case, emails he exchanged with his property manager show wariness about how the solar panels might look from the street, with the property manager asking, “Would it be possible to lay one of the panels on the roof and take a picture?”
Before ultimately thwarting Patel's plans, the developers said they would allow solar panels, but only on the north side of his home, which Patel calculated would absorb far less sun – just 56 percent, to be precise – than if the panels faced southward to the street.
Or, the development offered, Patel could put the panels in his backyard, which would have required knocking down many of the trees that form a mini-forest he enjoys. Neither option, he said, would make financial or practical sense. And he questioned whether the panels would harm the look of his home anyway.
“I’m not going to do anything to make my house look ugly,” he said.
Solar systems typically add value to homes. Buyers have consistently paid more for solar-powered properties, according to several recent studies.
Earlier this year, the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory found that homes equipped with a typical photovoltaic system (3.6 kilowatts) sold for an average of $15,000 more than those without such a setup. That research, funded by the federal Department of Energy, analyzed sales data on 23,000 homes in eight states not including Texas.
Stan Conord, who lives in the Trails of Chestnut Meadow development in Forney, finds himself in a predicament similar to Patel's. His $25,000 photovoltaic system is gathering dust in a storage locker after the neighborhood – still controlled by the developers – ordered him to take it down, about six months after he put it on his new house.
“It was saving me $250 a month in electricity,” said Conord, who was first turned on to solar power while living in New Jersey before Hurricane Sandy prompted a move to Texas. “They were absolutely a godsend.”
Chestnut Meadow, which has been around for years and looks poised to grow for decades more, cited the still-in-development clause when it ordered the panels down in March 2012.
Under the new law, homeowners associations where developers have transferred power to residents may still restrict solar devices, but only under a few specific circumstances, such as if the installation “substantially interferes with the use and enjoyment of land by causing unreasonable discomfort or annoyance.”
But none of those provisions appear to apply to either Concord’s or Patel’s growing neighborhoods. When September rolls around, Patel said he plans to resubmit his plans to The Colony, with the law on his side.
"Forestar’s prior actions are consistent with the current law, but we intend to comply with the new law when it becomes effective," said Anna Torma, a spokeswoman for the company.
Conord said he’s already brought up the new law to his property managers, who hadn’t heard of it and still did not appear willing to approve his plans.
Steve Bone, the association manager, did not respond to a request for comment, but said he would forward questions to his board of directors. None of those board members responded to the Tribune, and Bone did not respond to a request for anyone else’s contact information.
“It’s really a nice place to live,” Conord said of the neighborhood. “It’s just that solar would make it even better.”