For the past few years, Minnesota has seen substantial growth in the solar industry. However, new building code requirements for solar panel installations could change that.
Adopted in early April, the new Minnesota building codes restrict where solar panels can be installed on roofs. Depending on the size of the roof, the amount of space available to install solar panels could decrease by over 30%!
This could make it harder to install solar on Minnesotan homes, which means less savings for homeowners and less projects for solar installers.
Building code standards restrict Minnesota solar panel systems
On March 31, 2020, Minnesota enacted new building code standards that served to lay out new requirements for solar panel installations.
Minnesota’s new solar building code standards make two major changes:
- Requires a minimum of two, 36-inch pathways that lead from the edge of the roof to the ridge of the roof that allow safety personnel, such as firefighters, access to the roof
- Requires panels to be set back a certain distance from the ridge of the roof
The setback distance for a solar panel system depends on how much space the solar panels take up on your roof. If the solar system takes up less than 33% of the total roof space, your panels must be set back at least 18 inches from the ridge of the roof. If more than 33% of the roof is covered in panels, the system must be set back at least 36 inches from the ridge of the roof.
While this doesn’t sound like much, these requirements substantially cut back on the amount of space available for solar panels to be installed. With less space available, it could dramatically change how solar systems need to be designed, what equipment they need, and even the cost of the system. This is especially true for smaller houses.
New rules will have a bigger impact on small roofs
These building codes are going to severely impact solar installations on homes with smaller roofs. Homes with small roofs already have limited space to install solar panels as it is.
When you take away even more space to account for the building code regulations, there might not be enough space to install a solar panel system that substantially cuts the homeowner’s electric bills.
Here’s an example that demonstrates how homes with small roofs will be impacted. Let’s say you wanted to install 10 solar panels on a 500 square-foot roof. That system would be about 178.75 square feet of solar panels, or about 35% of the total roof space.
Because the system would take up more than 33% of the roof space, you would need to set the system back three feet away from the ridge of the roof. Plus, you also have to include the two access pathways, each of which must be three feet wide.
These new regulations effectively eliminate over 30% of the roof space that could be used for solar panels. This can make it much harder to make a design and fit all of the solar panels necessary for the customer. In some cases, it could make it impossible to design a system that makes economic sense for the homeowner.
Luckily, solar companies in Minnesota will still be able to put systems on homes with large roofs with relative ease. Homes with larger roofs have more surface area to install panels on. So, losing some roof space to the required pathways and setbacks isn’t such a big deal.
Solar power in Minnesota could have a rocky future
These changes to the building code come at the worst time for Minnesota’s solar industry. State business closure orders, social distancing requirements, and shelter-in-place orders due to coronavirus have turned the solar industry upside down.
Plus, Minnesota’s leading solar utility incentive, Xcel’s Solar Rewards program, is set to close at the end of the year. Solar advocates in Minnesota, such as MnSEIA, have already been lobbying to have Xcel extend the successful program. However, there is no guarantee that the extension will come to fruition.
With the ramping down of the federal tax credit, the closure of a significant utility incentive, and the coronavirus impacts on the solar industry, Minnesota solar already has a lot on its plate. These new building codes are going to make it that much harder for solar companies in MN to sell solar to smaller homes.
Prolonged solar permitting could increase the cost of solar power in MN
Another issue with the new building code changes is the negative impact they’re likely to have on the solar permitting process.
Solar permitting costs are included in what are called the “soft costs” of solar. Soft costs make up about 65% of the total cost of installing solar, and unfortunately they haven’t fallen much over the years.
Solar industry experts have identified a reduction in permitting costs as one of the easiest ways to reduce soft costs, which would benefit both installers and consumers.
However, the building code changes in Minnesota are likely to have the opposite effect. They could lead to an increase in permitting costs, and thus increasing the overall cost of installing solar in the state. This is because the building codes will increase solar permitting costs by increasing the amount of time it takes to review solar permits. Permitting officials will have to learn and enforce these new codes, which will likely take additional time.
And as the saying goes, time is money. So the more time it takes for permits to be reviewed, the more money the system will cost. Also, some permitting offices could default to simply not approving solar permits altogether if they don’t fully understand the new building code requirements.
Installers would then have to resubmit permits and go through the permitting process all over again. This extra time this takes will cost extra money.
High efficiency panels solve the space problem, but increase the price
The saving grace for homeowners with small roofs looking to go solar is the high efficiency solar panel. Higher efficiency solar panels convert more sunlight into energy for your home than by using a standard efficiency panel.
By designing a system with high efficiency panels, you can produce more energy in a smaller space. Because of this, installations on smaller spaces tend to use high efficiency panels.
The new building codes in Minnesota could lead to more high efficiency panels being installed. The following table lays out some popular high efficiency models that well-reviewed solar panel manufacturers offer:
The downside of using high efficiency panels is the possibility that they could cause the price of solar installations to increase in The North Star State, as high efficiency panels tend to come at a premium price.
This increased cost could make it uneconomical to install solar panels for some Minnesota homeowners.
New incentives required to boost Minnesota solar industry in this difficult period
Overall, the state’s new building code standards will make it harder to install solar on Minnesotan homes.
Not only that, the new codes could lead to an increase in installation costs by causing installers to switch to expensive high efficiency solar panels, as well as dragging out the permitting process.
The changes in the building codes unfortunately coincide with the coronavirus pandemic, a ramp down of the federal tax credit, and the expiration of the state’s most signficant solar incentive. This could lead to uncertainty for the future of solar in Minnesota.
Solar advocates in Minnesota have been fighting for the solar industry throughout the COVID-19 outbreak and have pushed for an extension of Xcel’s Solar Rewards program. This can provide some hope for the state’s solar industry.