Solar Easement: Everything You Need to Know

Solar panels obstructed by overhanging branches.

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One of the main obstacles to rooftop solar is shade, especially when it is shade from a neighbor's property. A solar easement can remove that obstacle by restricting that neighbor's right to encroach on your sunshine. The agreement is voluntary, so some negotiation and give-and-take are necessary. Obtaining that easement can be the difference between a solar installation that pays for itself in a few years and one that never does.

What Is an Easement?

An easement is a legal agreement about the use of property. A “positive” easement gives a person or entity the legal right to use someone else's property for a particular purpose, while a “negative” easement restricts what a property owner can do with their property.

Specifics of a Solar Easement

While you might have a verbal agreement with your neighbor to trim back their branches, nothing is binding and nothing would carry over to a new neighbor, should the property be sold. By contrast, a solar easement must be in writing and filed with local officials, such as a town or county clerk. 

There are some types of easements that are not voluntary, especially "positive" ones, where a public entity gains the right to use private land. But solar easements are voluntary, and nothing compels your neighbor to agree to one. That means there might be some “considerations” involved, meaning some compensation, whether in the form of money or other means. Depending on your relationship with your neighbor, that consideration can be as little as $10 or a clause stipulating that the grantee (you) will defray the expenses of trimming services or other costs necessary to maintain the easement.

As a legal agreement, a solar easement is a sale of property, and is binding on the property, not the person—so if a new neighbor buys the property, they are legally bound by the easement. Likewise, so is the new owner if you sell your property.

What's in the Agreement?

At present, 31 states have provisions for solar easements, and while they are generally uniform, you should check with your state's requirements. The Database of State Incentives for Renewables and Efficiency (DSIRE) contains state and local regulations regarding solar access and solar rights.

In most cases, a solar easement must include a description of both properties (the “dominant” one—yours—and the “subservient” one—your neighbor's), provisions of the agreement, specifications of the dimensions and vertical and horizontal angles of the space that must remain open to sunlight, and a description of restrictions on the height of any structures or plants.

Since December 21 is the date when the sun is at its lowest point in the southern sky, some easements include language specifying that no object on the subservient property shall shade the dominant property from 9:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. on December 21 of any year. Some states require penalties that specify if the “subservient” property owner fails to provide access to sunlight. Finally, an easement should include an “out” clause—means by which the easement may be modified or terminated.

Think About Long-Term Growth

Solar panels are a long-term investment, so think long-term about both your property and your neighbors' property and address any easement issues before you install anything on your roof. Your neighbor's Norway maple saplings might look pretty in the fall, but Norway maples are a fast-growing, invasive species. You might soon have a small forest overhanging your panels and a more difficult time getting your neighbor to remove it. Good easements make good neighbors.

Other Solar Regulations

You have no legal right to require a solar easement, though some states have enacted laws preventing entities from restricting your ability to obtain one. States might also have solar rights laws that limit private or local restrictions on installing solar panels on a property, such as a homeowners' association attempting to prohibit rooftop solar panels, often for aesthetic reasons. With the Solar Rights Act of 1978, California was the first state to enact legislation limiting the ability of local governments and homeowner associations to restrict solar installations or prohibit solar easements. California's Solar Shade Control Act also allows homeowners to seek court action against a neighbor whose trees or shrubs shade 10% or more of a previously installed solar system.

Should You Get a Solar Easement?

Aerial view of a modern houses in a new housing development.

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Since a solar easement is a legally binding agreement that is tied to both your property and your neighbor's, you might want to consult with legal counsel to help you craft a solar easement. (Your solar installer may be able to recommend lawyers experienced in this area.) In more urban settings, you might also need to negotiate with multiple neighbors.

But before you call a lawyer, consider the cost: Ask your solar installer how much energy will be gained with unobstructed panels, multiply that by the cost of electricity in your area, then multiply again by 25—the minimum expected lifetime of your panels. Then compare the amount of electricity gained from obtaining the solar easement to the price of lawyers' fees and whatever “considerations” you are willing to offer to your neighbor.

Negotiating an easement with a neighbor can be tricky, as it involves both of you giving something up. If you conclude that is financially or emotionally not worth the cost of an easement, you can either install higher efficiency solar panels on the unobstructed portion of your roof or join a community solar farm.