It was with much excitement that Nancy Simmet submitted an application to install solar panels to her homeowners association (HOA) in the fall of 2020. Spurred by a desire to use renewable energy and benefit from state and corporate incentives for going solar, and edged on by boredom during the pandemic, Simmet reached out to a Minnesota-based solar company, I-solar, to work up a layout for her detached townhouse. But like many residents across the state and country, Simmet’s desire hit a roadblock with her homeowners association. Within 24 hours, Simmet’s application was rejected by her HOA.
Roughly a quarter of the state’s population lives in HOA communities, with 37 percent of the state’s homeowners being part of HOAs, leaving a large portion of the state’s residents reliant on their HOA’s policies to use renewable energy. But some state legislators are hoping to give homeowners more autonomy in their decision to go solar.
A bipartisan bill authored by Rep. Ami Wazlawik, DFL-White Bear Township, and Sen. Karin Housley, R-Stillwater, would restrict the authority HOAs have in denying homeowners the ability to install solar panels and would have given homeowners associations structural guidelines for solar installation requests. After weeks of negotiations, the HOA interest and lobby group Community Actions Institute agreed to hold a neutral stance on the bill. But while the bill passed through the House as a part of the energy budget omnibus bill, it did not make it through the Senate. Still, the bill’s authors plan to introduce the legislation again next year.
Wazlawik says that while individual decisions to go solar might seem minor, they actually contribute to a larger effort for residents and businesses in Minnesota to engage with renewable energy.
“It’s sort of a small piece of the larger package of things that we’ve been working on as legislators in the House, on solar and on renewable energy,” Wazlawik said. “So I think even though it’s a smaller piece of the puzzle, it is an important piece of trying to move in a new direction of using renewable energy.”
Rachel Aplikowski, the communications director and press secretary for the Senate Republican caucus, said the bill was introduced in the Senate after the committee deadline had passed, but believes there’s a chance the bill could get a hearing next year.
Financial incentives and environmental values
Minnesota is often included in lists of the top states in the country to go solar. The state offers incentives that include a sales tax exemption and solar bill credits for sending energy back to solar grids through net metering.
It is these incentives along with a desire to use environmentally friendly energy sources that pushed Simmet to testify in front of the House Climate and Energy Finance and Policy committee in March.
“I do believe that we should have clean, renewable energy, whether it’s wind or anything else,” Simmet said. “I just feel that I need to do my part.”
Jonathan Edmonson, another homeowner who gave testimony to the committee, said along with factoring in the carbon offset, he had calculated how much he would save over the lifetime of a solar panel installation and decided he wanted to install the panels. “It was looking like I could easily save over $50,000 over the lifetime of the system.”
Edmonson said while his HOA did not reject his application, it did not have policies in place to consider solar panels. Months after submitting an application to approve installation, he is still waiting to hear a final answer. He has been told that the aesthetics of the panels is the leading factor in the decision to withhold an answer.
Bobby King, the Minnesota state director of Solar United Neighbors, a nonprofit organization that helps people go solar, says that often HOAs reject requests for installation solely to maintain uniformity and that he frequently hears from hopeful consumers that their request is being refused without any additional considerations.
Law would allow restrictions but not denial
“A lot of HOAs in Minnesota either outright prohibit solar or make it very difficult to get solar, and other states have passed laws that give homeowners the right to go solar,” King said. “So this law would say HOA homeowners have the right to go solar and the HOA can place some restrictions, but they can’t just say, no, you can’t go solar.”
King says that going solar gives families energy independence and financial security and is an important factor for legislators to consider.
Peter Teigland, who helped author the bill as a policy associate for the Minnesota Solar Energy Industries Association (MnSEIA), a 501(c)(6) trade organization that represents more than 100 solar companies throughout the state, says that many HOAs were formed prior to the popularization of solar energy and often don’t know how to address installation questions.
“I think a lot of the issue with HOAs was their declarations and bylaws, many of which were written a while ago, just never contemplated solar panels as an architectural addition or a fixture to a home. And so when this comes up, the folks that are either on the board or the management company associated with the HOAs just don’t know exactly what to do and default to not allowing this to happen.”
Teigland believes the bill will help HOAs navigate Minnesota’s growing solar market. In an interview with the Star Tribune, David Shaffer, the executive director of the Minnesota Solar Energy Industries Association, projected that the construction of utility-scale and community solar this year would be double the amount completed in 2019 or 2020. Renewable energy sources currently make up nearly a quarter of the state’s electricity production, with solar energy constituting 3 percent.
Rep. Jamie Long, DFL-Minneapolis, chair of the Climate and Energy Finance and Policy Committee, believes a hearing in the Senate could alter the fate of the bill next year.
“I think, at least for me, the hearing was really impactful because the testimony was really compelling that these individuals wanted to do what so many other Minnesota homeowners want, which is put solar on their roof. And they were being prevented from doing so, even though they oftentimes had no knowledge that that could even be a possibility when they went out and bought their house in an HOA.”