Solar in D.C. is about to be more accessible than ever

By Nick Seymour on March 8, 2019

Last month, the D.C. Zoning Commission suddenly decided that community solar arrays would be qualified as basic utilities. This would mean every community solar array would have to go through the commission to get a special, hard-to-get zoning variance. Backlash against this move was so immediate and intense that solar energy throughout the District is likely to become more accessible, not less.

Community solar arrays allow those who can’t or prefer not to install solar in their homes to still benefit from solar energy. They allow individuals or businesses to purchase or lease a portion of an offsite solar array. The consumer would then have the electricity produced from their share credited on their electric bill, much the same as if the system were installed on their own property. Their official name in D.C. zoning law is “Community Renewable Energy Facilities”, or CREFs. When the commission qualified CREFs as basic utilities, both the D.C. Office of Planning and the D.C. Department of Energy & Environment (DOEE) moved to protect solar access in the District and the Solar for All program. They recently appealed the commission to instead qualify CREFs as a “matter-of-right” throughout the District.

In response, the commission relented. It is now in the process of writing new rules to qualify CREFs as matter-of-right. What’s more, the Office of Planning closely defined a CREF as a “facility used for the generation and subsequent assignment of renewable energy generated by a community solar energy system”. This definition will ensure that all existing and prospective solar consumers in D.C. can easily benefit from having the sun pay their electric bills.

While you may not have heard of the specific term, you may be familiar with the matter-of-right (or the synonymous “by-right”) concept as it applies to zoning districts. For example, if you live in a townhome in Mount Pleasant, you know that there are also semi-detached houses, fully-detached houses, and apartment buildings nearby. That’s because in your zoning district, all of those houses are allowed there as a matter-of-right. They did not need a special variance to be built in your area.

If the Zoning Commission had gotten their way with qualifying solar arrays as a basic utility, prospective community solar developers would have to jump through several hoops to earn their zoning variance. First, they’d have to prove that a zoning regulation would make the project too practically difficult. They they’d have to prove that a regulation would result in “undue hardship” on the property owner. If the Zoning Commission deemed the homeowner’s proof to be sufficient, they would then have to determine if granting the variance would not contradict the “general intent” of the regulations in question.

Put plainly, getting a zoning variance is a pain and a half.

Forcing the D.C. Zoning Commission to qualify community solar arrays as a matter-of-right will save prospective consumers from undertaking a Sisyphean task in order to go solar. The commission now has less than four months to permanently qualify solar arrays as a matter-of-right. After those rules are finalized, there will be one less hurdle for people in D.C. who want to go solar.

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