Do Homeowners Have a Right to Light on Their Solar Panels?

CC BY 2.0. Lloyd Alter/ view of solar panels across development site

Perhaps, but what about the windows on a passive house? Why the high tech bias?

Ten years ago Lee Adamson put solar panels on the south-facing roof of her house in Toronto and has been generating electricity ever since. She tells the CBC that they shaved 60 percent off her monthly electricity bill.

Front of house

Lloyd Alter/ Solar panels on front half of house/CC BY 2.0But just to the southwest of her house, on the nearest main street, a developer wants to build a 12-storey residential building. It’s a good spot for such a building, with a fast separated streetcar line that takes you to the subway in seven minutes, good schools and good shopping. (Full disclosure: I live three blocks away.) As one environmental activist Franz Hartman noted, it’s "a great problem to have -- we're getting higher buildings, we're getting more density, we're building in the places we should be building."

City councillor Joe Mihevc, who doesn’t oppose development on St. Clair Avenue, does think that there is a problem, and has asked the city to report on the "right to sunlight" for solar panels near new developments. He tells the CBC:

More and more homeowners are purchasing solar energy units. What happens when a developer builds right beside it and blocks the sun to that solar energy producer? That's the new reality we have to face.

In his request to the City, Joe writes:

Residential solar policy is an underdeveloped policy area and the City needs to understand how it will meet competing interests of new developments and neighbourhood installations, particularly where solar installations may be impacted negatively.
Ancient lights

Mike Newman/ Wikipedia/CC BY 2.0

This is not a new problem; in many ways it goes back hundreds of years. In English law, codified in 1832, there is ancient lights legislation that makes it illegal to block light that has traditionally reached windows. Homeowners sometimes marked them to warn developers that they would fight to retain their rights.

In Canada, the right to ancient lights was lost in an 1880 court case; in the US, it took a big case in Florida regarding the Fountainebleau Hotel Corp. v. Forty-Five Twenty-Five, Inc. in 1959 to get rid of the right to light.

In Australia, according to Sanctuary magazine, there has been a lot of discussion about this issue.

The denser the development permitted in or near the zone your property is in, the less expectation you can have that your right to solar access can be protected....A loss of sunlight to a solar array, resulting in a total loss of energy generation greater than 50 per cent, has been held to be unreasonable.

Writing in TreeHugger, I have often noted that rooftop solar power disproportionately favours those who own rooftops, many of whom, in Toronto, live near main streets where there are development pressures. Shadowing is just one of the many arguments used to try and stop development. But as one commenter responded when I mentioned this on Facebook, “In this example you can demonize those wealthy enough to own a home with PV and make us lose sympathy for them, but that doesn't address actual development or energy problems; it just drives a social wedge.”

In this case, it doesn’t appear to be part of an argument against development, but an honest look at whether neighbours should be compensated if their solar panels are blocked. There seems to be a consensus that homeowners with panels should be.

But then it is, once again, a bias toward solar panels compared to other less high-tech methods of saving energy. If one designs a passive house and depends on a certain amount of solar gain through their windows, shouldn’t they be compensated?