City drafts solar energy regulations

Editor's note: This corrects the spelling of Taylor Honrath's last name.

In response to a homeowner who covered his property's hillside with solar panels, Newport Beach officials have drafted rules that would regulate solar installations — where they can be installed, what type of materials are allowed — and have created incentives for home and business owners to follow good design principles.

State law prevents cities from evaluating solar installations' aesthetics, in order to encourage solar energy development, but Newport officials have said that panels may jeopardize peoples' health and need to be regulated.

The rules would require anti-glare or non-reflective coating on panels, and that homeowners conceal some of the equipment from public view. They also say any ground-mounted system — like the hillside installation — must undergo an extensive city review.

"They just want to make sure this cannot happen again," said Taylor Honrath, the director of CleanTechOC, an industry trade group.

One of the biggest complaints by neighbors of the 168 panels along Bayside Drive was their glare. Some Balboa Island residents said the afternoon sun bounced off the panels and into their living rooms.

Councilman Ed Selich, who represents the area, requested in July that city staff members research the issue.

After reviewing the draft rules, some solar experts question whether the city should require non-glare surfaces. The most advanced technology uses glass that inevitably produces a small amount of glare.

"It's almost impossible to eliminate sun reflection and glare," said Matt Stoutenburg, the president of a solar installation company that helped Newport officials draft the rules.

He says some of the restrictions may need to be tweaked, but he likes the incentives the city has offered, like expedited permitting for good design.

If panels aren't visible by a 6-foot person standing nearby, for example, then the project could qualify for incentives. Other "voluntary guidelines" include not mounting panels on a coastal bluff and orienting them away from neighboring windows.

In exchange, solar installers and their customers may have their fees waived or reduced, and could get an award from the city.

"Newport Beach has taken a novel approach to see how they can give kudos to people who do it right, and we appreciate that," said Sue Kateley, executive director of the California Solar Energy Industries Assn.

Cities are mostly hamstrung when dealing with solar power systems because of the state Solar Rights Act and a 2005 provision that required cities to approve them automatically — that is, unless there is a "specific, adverse impact upon the public health or safety."

City planners who drafted the rules wrote in a report that "water quality could be diminished due to water pollutant from runoff" and that "a reduction of trees and plants in yards could reduce air quality and increase greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere."

No evidence was included for their findings, and city planners did not return calls for comment.

Industry experts agreed that solar installations should be respectful of neighbors, and that the Bayside Drive panels may have crossed an unnecessary line.

"We all want to see solar go in, but we don't want to have lunar landing modules all over," said Stoutenburg.

If You Go

What: Planning Commission Meeting

Where: City Council Chambers at 3300 Newport Blvd.

When: Thursday 6:30 p.m.

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