Property Rights in Solar Panel Light


Overlawyered links to an interesting case:

the Santa Clara County District Attorney's Office is pursuing a Sunnyvale couple under a little-known California law because redwood trees in their backyard cast a shadow over their neighbor's solar panels.

The law, as described in the article, prioritizes the rights of solar cell owners over the rights of tree owners. And it seems to do this in a remarkably fair, clear, and property-rights oriented manner: solar cell owners have the right to 90% of the 10am to 2pm sunlight that they had when installing the panels. That's it.

The law was written by former Assemblyman Chuck Imbrecht, a Ventura Republican, as a way to guarantee, amid the energy crises of the 1970s, that people who installed solar panels wouldn't see a drop in their investment from nearby trees.

It affects only trees planted after 1979, and bans trees or shrubs from shading more than 10 percent of a neighbor's solar panels between 10 a.m. and 2p.m.

In other words, you cannot install solar panels in shade, and then demand your neighbor cut down his trees. Nice.

This type of law is more robust than most, since it tries to respect the rights of long-term owners, while understanding that newcomers should be able to claim and hold their stakes in unused resources. Bravo.


Presumably solar panels reduce the burning of coal to generate electricity, but then their benefits need to be weighed against the growing of trees. The trees that shade my house in California provide considerable cooling value to my house as well as increased livability which greatly reduces the need for air conditioning. The trees are deciduous, so the sun shines on the house in the winter when it's needed. Furthermore, the trees sequester carbon as they grow. So, comparisons of coal burning reductions by use of solar panels vs. growing of trees require more careful analyses of particular situations.

Well, I think a hard rule used to judge all cases is a pretty good idea. Californians might want to revisit the specifics of the rule, e.g. to change the percentage of rights it assigns, or might want to scrap it all together, but that should be completely outside the scope of this particular dispute.

These neighbors honestly disagree about how to best save the planet, and the reason this conflict is not being handled very well by the fixed and hard rule is that the couple wants the rule changed to their own advantage, basically on the firm belief that their environmental consciousness is superior to someone else's. That is precisely what should NOT happen on a case by case basis.

The couple who are suing simply cannot accept the fact that under this law, the overall policy question has been settled -- first movers have an assigned property right, but so do second movers. Any desire to confiscate others' rights requires dickering between the parties over the price that they're willing to pay.


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This page contains a single entry by Kevin published on January 25, 2008 12:49 PM.

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