When Larry and Sandra Cohn noticed their electric bill was increasing, they decided it was time to invest in solar panels.
The Town of Poughkeepsie couple contacted NRG Home Solar, a California-based company that serves New York and several other states.
But, there was a problem.
A new Town of Poughkeepsie law required solar panels be placed at least three feet from the edge of any part of the roofline. The law came amid growing concerns from firefighters, who increasingly are encountering solar panels during fires.
The setback, it was reasoned, would ensure safe access during a blaze. It would also, the Cohns learned, reduce the amount of panels on their home by 34 percent.
“I didn’t understand why you had to have three feet,” Sandra Cohn said. “… I didn’t see how it was going to hinder the firemen.”
In September, the Cohns received a variance from the town that allowed them to have the border on just two sides of their roofline.
But now, New York State is weighing similar rules that would apply to all municipalities. The new building codes were proposed in November, and public hearings are planned later this month.
At a time when Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s “Reforming the Energy Vision” plan seeks to encourage the development of clean, locally produced power, the changes could inhibit solar panel installations on residential and commercial buildings.
Carlo Lanza, president of the New York Solar Energy Industries Association, a statewide advocacy group, said the rules could limit the available roof space for residential systems by as much as 40 percent.
“We fear it will have the greatest impact on low- to moderate-income communities,” Lanza said in a statement, “as their available roof space is typically smaller.” In those cases, he said, the systems could be shrunk to the point where they are no longer economically viable.
David Faulkner, a 51-year-old Town of Poughkeepsie resident, had solar panels installed on his home before the town’s regulation went into effect. However, Faulkner said, a neighbor who considered panels after the law was adopted decided to scrap the plan after it became clear how much power generation would be lost.
“This is bad for the environment, bad for the residents of Poughkeepsie and bad for the solar industry,” he said.
The proposed rules track back to regulations first adopted in California. They gained traction in the northeast, in part, after firefighters responding to a 2013 fire at a warehouse in New Jersey held off accessing a roof covered with more than 7,000 panels.
The firefighters were concerned about the potential for electrocution. The more than 250,000-square-foot warehouse burned to the ground and the company, deli meat and cheese producer Dietz & Watson, decided to rebuild in Pennsylvania.
“This is new to us,” said Tory Gallante, chief of the Arlington Fire District in the Town of Poughkeepsie. “I am not aware of any significant issues we have had here regarding the solar panels. But obviously, they are a concern to us.”
The panels can create other issues. Their weight can make a roof more likely to collapse. And they can inhibit the firefighting strategy of cutting a hole in a roof for ventilation.
“We try to make the cut over the fire area,” Gallante said. “So the density of the panels can make it impossible for us to make that hole.”
Jeff Irish, CEO of Hudson Solar in Rhinebeck, said the rules have had less of an impact on sales in California, where roof pitches are lower, there is less tree shading and sun angles are higher.
“In New York, it could be more restrictive to solar because we have steeper roof pitches for snow shedding, more tree shading and lower sun angles,” Irish said.
The state will hold public hearings beginning Jan. 25 in Albany, Buffalo, Long Island and Syracuse. The public comment period ends Feb. 5.