Solar panels on a house rooftop.
A Cary homeowner had to gather petitions from neighbors and appeal to his homeowners association twice to allow his front-facing solar panels. Credit: Yes Solar Solutions / Courtesy

Sven Jordt likes living in his Chapel Hill, North Carolina, neighborhood. The small subdivision, called Windsor Park, is about a mile from bustling shopping centers and the interstate and an easy commute to Duke University, where he works as a researcher. There are plenty of trees, a pond, and even a little creek.

“It’s great for our family, very quiet,” Jordt said. The community’s homes are all similar by design, in a style typical of the late ’90s when they were built. Nothing special — suburban but comfortable and spacious, he said. “It’s really enjoyable here.”

But Jordt has one complaint: His homeowners association. It would only let him install solar panels on the back of his house, instead of the south-facing front where they would get the most rays and produce the most energy. The placement would cost him $10,000 extra, a financial no-go. For now, solar panels are off the table. 

“This is a big problem. If Chapel Hill wants to be kind of a ‘solar town,’” Jordt said of his climate-conscious city — replete with subdivisions like his — “if the HOAs are blocking this, it will not go very far.”

It’s not just Chapel Hill. Solar installers say they regularly face roadblocks from HOA communities across the state, where more than a quarter of North Carolinians and 40% of homeowners live. Alongside utility rules about connecting to the grid and selling back excess solar energy, many installers view HOA rules as the number one barrier to expanding rooftop solar.

“When we’re assessing a home, the first few questions are going to be, ‘Who’s your utility?’ and ‘Do you have an HOA?” said Brandon Pendry, communications specialist at Southern Energy Management. Without HOA approval, he said, “nothing else matters. It is essentially the big gate key at the beginning.”

Most rooftop solar companies have made it part of their business model to educate HOAs, help homeowners file applications and appeal denials, and even help organize votes to change deed restrictions. Outright rejection of solar systems has become increasingly rare. Still, said Kathy Miller, CEO and co-founder of Yes Solar Solutions in Cary, “we have had plenty of disappointed customers that could not go solar due to HOA restrictions.”

As Jordt’s HOA did, associations that block solar often cite a 2007 state law that lets them prevent panels visible from the street. But it’s not clear that they’re all on firm legal ground: The statute’s intent is to make it easier for homeowners in HOA communities to go solar, not harder. While it does allow explicit restrictions on public-facing solar panels, some lawyers argue it doesn’t permit de facto bans. A case making its way to the state Supreme Court — in which a Raleigh HOA sued a family who erected panels without its permission — could soon settle the question. 

For now, said Aaron Davis, the president of Greenville, South Carolina-based Firefly Solar, “it’s going to come down to whoever’s got the highest-paid lawyer.”

No matter how the court rules, solar installers are pushing legislation to change the 2007 law, removing homeowners associations’ ability to outlaw street-facing panels altogether and preventing them from forcing a change that would cause more than a 10% drop in arrays’ efficiency.

With a suite of Republican sponsors, led by Rep. Harry Warren of Salisbury, the bill, H842, cleared the GOP-controlled House earlier this spring with relative ease, with just 29 legislators, all Republicans, voting “no.”

“Residential solar is the future and we know that,” Rep. Mark Brody of Union County, one of 36 Republicans who backed the bill, said on the House floor. “It’s going to develop and we’re going to have to be part of that.”

The bill may face a tougher road in the Republican-led Senate, and its House sponsors predict its language will change. But if it becomes law as written, it will only apply to the roughly 320 new HOAs that take root in the state each year, not the 14,100 that already exist. About 60% of those govern single-family home communities.

“It’s a good first step,” said Matt Abele, former manager of marketing at the North Carolina Sustainable Energy Association and host of the group’s Squeaky Clean Energy podcast. “After that, there will be a lot of education and market awareness. And we can use that as another steppingstone.”

‘What’s happening in housing development’

More Americans now live in HOA communities than ever before. An estimated 60% of all recently built single-family homes and 80% of houses in new subdivisions are governed by homeowners associations.

But these communities saw their most explosive growth in the final decades of the last century, as mostly White Americans fled city cores, flocking to the suburbs and the outskirts of college towns like Chapel Hill.

Governments extended Interstates like I-40, putting these neighborhoods in easy reach of employers like Duke and the software companies of Research Triangle Park. Developers replaced forests and farmland with shopping centers like the ones near Windsor Park.

While deed restrictions explicitly discriminating against Black people were outlawed in 1968, common HOA rules could still effectuate racial and class homogeneity: No chain-link fences, no chickens, no clotheslines allowed. Doors, fences and sheds could only be painted a certain color. 

According to a sweeping nationwide study from the University of California at Irvine, communities with HOAs still tend to be wealthier and less racially diverse than those without. The analysis found that homes in HOA communities in North Carolina sold for almost 10% more than non-HOA homes.

The aesthetic guidelines that have long worked to boost property values and exclude certain homeowners are now regularly used to dictate solar panel placement. The practice has become so common that installers like Raleigh-based NC Solar Now have developed a suite of template materials to assist homeowners.

“We have a department to help people because it’s so hard for our residents and our customers to navigate the HOA process on their own,” said Erin Hawks, a program manager for the company, who started the division in 2016. “When I took over, there were seven approvals a month — and now there are 40. That says a lot about what’s happening in housing development.”

‘A lot of confusion on the ground’

As David Roberts has reported in Volts, experts increasingly see rooftop solar and home batteries as a critical piece of the clean energy transition — complementing large centralized renewable power sources like North Carolina’s vast solar fields.

But rooftop solar is still in its nascent stages here. The Solar Energy Industries Association and Wood Makenzie estimate there are now nearly 21,000 residential solar installations in North Carolina — a vanishingly small fraction of the state’s 3.1 million detached housing units. Roughly 15,000 of these rooftop arrays were installed in the last three years, spurred in part by a 2017 state law.

It’s no wonder, then, that HOAs, especially in older subdivisions, suffer from a simple lack of knowledge when it comes to solar panels: how they work, what they look like, and why they’re important. Many don’t even specify solar panels in their covenants.

Appearance is a frequent concern, even though the bluish panels of yesteryear have been replaced by black versions that blend in with most roof shingles. Outdoor conduits that transfer power from the roof to the AC/DC inverter cause consternation, though homeowners usually hide or paint them to match their siding. 

One of NC Solar Now’s template letters assures HOAs that the company has high regard for camouflaging, “which ensures aesthetically pleasing installations.”

Since beauty is in the eye of the beholder, homeowners sometimes convince HOA architectural review committees to allow front-facing panels by getting the OK from the neighbors who’ll be looking at them. 

“We had one homeowner in Cary,” said Miller of Yes Solar, “that had to appeal twice to his HOA and get a petition signed by neighbors to allow his front-facing system.” 

Some HOAs worry that glare from panels will disrupt views or even catch fire. NC Solar Now also has a template letter for that objection. “Solar panels are designed to absorb, not reflect, as much solar energy as possible in order to maximize production,” it reads.  

The company promises to pay neighbors for any damages caused by its rooftop installation. “We’ll take all responsibility if Mr. So-and-So’s house burns on the corner,” Hawks said, “because we’re that sure that it’s not going to.”

HOA boards don’t always grasp the importance of panel placement. South-facing roofs are ideal, while roofs facing directly east or west produce about 20% less electricity. North-facing roofs produce about half as much. 

Jordt, for example, would have had to install 47 panels on his northeast-facing roof to produce the same amount of electricity as his originally proposed 33. That would have increased his price by almost 50%, and the system wouldn’t pay off for 15 years or more, he said. “I said that it was an unreasonable request.”

Jordt’s HOA didn’t budge. But sometimes associations do relent. Davis, of Firefly Solar, said one HOA was adamant that his company move an array to the back of the house until he finally explained that the homeowner’s “return on investment would be greatly diminished,” he recalled. As soon as they heard that, “they said, ‘Oh, okay, put it on the front.’”

Solar companies also stress that rooftop panels increase property value. In 2019, real estate company Zillow found that North Carolina homes with solar sold for 4.8% more than those without over a one-year period. (Jordt pointed that out, too: no response.)

When reasoning with their HOAs fails, some homeowners change their communities’ architectural rules by organizing a vote. Hawks, for instance, estimates NC Solar Now alone has helped amend covenants in 10 to 20 HOA neighborhoods. “We have been successful in turning communities green,” she said.

But such organizing takes a critical mass of people ready to go solar, and timing is crucial. In the case of one customer, Hawks said she was waiting for the right moment. “I have in my notes: ‘grassroots effort. Neighborhood has to turn.’”

Still, every HOA is unique, and the processes for changing covenants aren’t always transparent. Windsor Park “was basically unresponsive to my request to organize a vote,” Jordt said. “They’re not telling me what the rules are.”

What’s more, new HOA boards are sometimes composed of subdivision developers, not community residents, making rule changes and appeals nearly impossible, Hawks said. “I have a customer that lives in a neighborhood that can’t even speak to a person face to face about their home,” she said.

When logical appeals and organizing to change the rules fail, some homeowners have turned to litigation — or the threat thereof. Given the fuzziness of the current law on front-facing panels, the strategy can work. 

“There’s a lot of confusion on the ground about just how to apply it,” said James Galvin, an attorney in Charlotte. “For the most part, I’ve been able to negotiate for people to keep solar panels.”

‘But for the HOAs’

The exception is Belmont Association v. Farwig. The Raleigh homeowners association is suing Galvin’s clients, who installed panels visible from the street without seeking permission. “This is the first one where an association really decided to stand its ground and say, ‘We’re going to fight this,’” Galvin said.

While “improvements” require approval under Belmont’s 2011 deed restrictions, solar panels aren’t specified. Still, the HOA argues a provision in the 2007 law allows it to force street-facing panels to be moved to the back. A trial court and a three-judge panel of the Court of Appeals have agreed.

But Galvin plans to appeal to the Supreme Court and draws hope from a dissenting opinion from Court of Appeals Judge Darren Jackson. At length, Jackson argues that the plain text of the law only permits explicit prohibitions on solar panels that can be seen from the street, and that lawmakers clearly sought to prevent deed restrictions that would pose insurmountable financial burdens to going solar. “The General Assembly is not often so direct and clear about its intent,” he writes.

(Jackson should know. From 2009 to 2020, he was a Democratic state representative from Wake County, and he served as the House minority leader for four years.)

The majority opinion from the Court of Appeals essentially gives HOAs an option to dictate solar placement regardless of what’s in their deed restrictions, Galvin said. “It’s a very broad, overreading of the statute.”

But even if the state’s highest court meets Galvin’s highest hopes, there would still be the problem of the “buckets” created by the 2007 law. In one bucket, any covenant created before October 1, 2007, is free to prohibit solar panels, implicitly or explicitly. In another bucket are covenants created after that date, which can only ban public-facing panels.

If H842 passes as written, post-2021 HOAs would only be able to move panels on the margins. That, said Weldon Jones, the contract lobbyist for the statewide association of HOAs, “would essentially establish a third bucket.”

The state chapter of the Community Associations Institute, Jones’s client, has “certain issues” with H842. “The difficulty with the three buckets is one concern,” he said. Another is that associations — though they don’t oppose renewable energy in general — have an obligation to all owners to abide by covenants that run with the land. “One owner who wants solar panels,” he said, “could be placed directly next to another who does not want to look at solar.”

Ironically, the buckets were first created to appease opponents of the bill, said Reps. Susan Fisher of Asheville and Pricey Harrison of Greensboro, Democrats who sponsored the original 2007 law. “It may not have gone as far as it would have,” said Fisher, who’s served since 2004, “but for the HOAs.”

Now in the minority, Harrison and Fisher are cosponsors of H842, but letting the measure’s Republican authors take the lead on its passage. Since clearing the House before a key deadline in May, the bill has been lodged in the Senate rules committee.

In standard lobbyist vernacular, Jones said his group “wasn’t opposed to working on this issue,” and that he thought an agreement could be worked out with solar interests. But he didn’t pinpoint what the common ground was, and minced no words in criticizing the bill as drafted. 

“It completely removes the associations’ ability to regulate the location and placement of panels,” Jones said, “and to preserve the aesthetic harmony of the community.”

Even if the bill passes, solar installers are eager to take the next step and outlaw all deed restrictions on solar, no matter when they were adopted. There’s certainly no constitutional reason not to, Galvin said. 

“The right to prevent your neighbor from having solar energy,” he said, “is not a highly protected right.”

Correction: This article has been updated to reflect Matt Abele’s current title.

Based in Raleigh, North Carolina, Elizabeth has covered the state’s clean energy transition for the Energy News Network since 2016. She has also produced features for Environmental Health News and SEJournal, the news magazine of the Society of Environmental Journalists. A former communications director for the nonprofit Environment America, Elizabeth brings over two decades of environmental and energy policy experience to her reporting.