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Real Estate Law Issues for Solar Energy: Introduction to Government Incentives

This is the first in what will be a series of articles on legal issues associated with solar energy, from a purely real estate perspective.  Future articles will discuss easements, restrictive covenants and government restrictions on related solar systems.

Once the sole domain of the ecologically minded, the green building movement has gone mainstream. Part of that push has been the increase in solar power use in homes and businesses. The decision by homeowners and businesses to install solar electric systems, which are also known as photovoltaic (“PV”) systems, may be made for a variety of reasons. Some want to preserve fossil fuels and reduce air pollution. Some want to invest in an energy producing improvement to their property. Still others like the independence of a solar system, making them less vulnerable to increases in energy prices. A number of government incentives have helped spur this growth of the solar market. However, the increased interest in solar energy and solar systems has created certain real estate law issues, including: (1) the creation of solar easements, (2) restrictive covenants and homeowner’s association requirements, and (3) compliance with zoning and building codes. This article highlights the current state of the solar market and government incentives, with future articles highlighting each of items (1) through (3) above.

Market Trends

The solar energy market has dramatically increased in the past decade and as a result, PV systems have become more affordable. Major retailers across the country have begun to invest in commercial solar systems. Target, Staples, Whole Foods, Safeway, Costco, Wal-Mart, and Best Buy, among others, have each installed or announced plans to install PV systems. However, in the current economic climate, the growth of the solar industry has slowed. Banks and financial institutions once eager to finance installation of solar systems are no longer financing renewable energy sources at prior levels. As a result, the government will play a critical role in the continued development of the solar industry. The industry is optimistic that the current administration will continue to push towards “green” energy in the long term and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (the “Recovery Act”) is considered to be a strong initial step in that direction.

Government Incentives

On October 3, 2008, President Bush signed into law the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008, which, among other things, extended tax credits for solar energy systems. The tax credits apply to both residential and commercial solar installations for 30 percent of the cost of a system “placed in service” from January 1, 2006 through December 31, 2016. This energy investment credit also provides businesses with a five-year accelerated depreciation for the cost of equipment used to generate solar electricity. With the eight year extension of the solar investment tax credit, the solar industry is projected to gain 440,000 permanent jobs and $325 billion in investment by 2016.

President Obama signed the Recovery Act into law on February 17, 2009. It provides a personal tax credit for the purchase of qualified solar electric property and defines qualified solar electric property as property that uses solar energy to generate electricity for use in a dwelling.  The credit is equal to 30 percent of qualifying expenditures, and there is no cap. The credit applies to systems placed in service prior to January 1, 2017.  Expenditures for labor costs, including on-site preparation, assembly, or original installation of the solar electric property are eligible for the credit.

The Recovery Act also allows individuals and businesses to qualify for the full amount of the solar tax credit, even if projects receive “subsidized energy financing.” The term subsidized energy financing means financing provided under a federal, state, or local program whose principal purpose is to provide subsidized financing for projects designed to conserve or produce energy. A multitude of states offer such additional tax incentives for solar systems which include, sales tax exemptions on the purchase of solar systems, property tax exemptions, state personal income tax credits, solar rebates, or net metering programs, which enable system owners to sell excess power generated by their system to the utility.

Additionally, the Recovery Act provides developers a choice of either taking a 30 percent tax credit or apply for a grant for 30 percent of the project cost from the Treasury Department for PV systems. However, in order for a project to be eligible for such funds, construction must start in 2009 or 2010. The Recovery Act also expands the existing 30 percent solar investment tax credit to include solar manufacturing equipment. Solar manufacturing equipment is that equipment used to produce solar material and components, such as, solar cells, silicon, solar collectors, and evacuated tubes. The aim of this incentive is to create an American solar manufacturing base and to maximize domestic job opportunities in the solar industry.

As stated above, there is a sense of optimism that the Obama administration will be beneficial to the green building and, specifically, solar energy industries. Only time will tell, but the administration has obviously taken a strong initial step in that direction.

Geoff White is a Senior Associate in the Commercial Transactions and Real Estate Group at Frost Brown Todd. He is a contributing author to Green Real Estate Law Journal. He also oversees the Green Building Series on the Frost Brown Todd’s Construction Law News website. Mr. White is licensed to practice law in Kentucky and Ohio and is a member of the Kentucky Chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council. Learn more about Geoff at http://www.frostbrowntodd.com/geoffwhite

Julio V. Driggs is an Associate in the Commercial Transactions and Real Estate Group of Frost Brown Todd, which has a Resource Conservation Committee that is helping the firm go green.  Mr. Driggs is licensed to practice in Kentucky.  Learn more about Julio at http://www.frostbrowntodd.com/juliodriggs

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One Response to Real Estate Law Issues for Solar Energy: Introduction to Government Incentives

  1. Kenneth Roberts September 26, 2009 at 1:51 pm #

    Thank you for your excellent article and perhaps I have not read it and the footnotes carefully enough because I have a few questions.

    Along the lines of a law in Gainesville, Florida (?) requiring local utility generation providers to purchase excess solar power (electricity) generated by homeowners at the same price that provider charges for electricity to the end-user, what is the current status of that law and what, in your opinion, is the chance that Congress could draft and pass a Federal Law applicable to all residential and commercial “investors” of solar equipment in their respective properties to be entitled to sell their excess solar-generated electricity back to their utility provider?

    I am real estate attorney in the San Francisco Bay Area with a strong interest in this area but don’t know who to contact and how to get involved in this area. I have contacted a few local solar firms but, so far, to no avail. I was even thinking of attending the October convention in Anaheim.

    Any answers, opinions and advice pertaining to the above will be gratefully appreciated.

    Kenneth Roberts
    415-994-9999

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