What Is The Setback For Solar Panels In California?

California has been a leader in solar power adoption for decades. The state gets an average of 284 sunny days per year, making it an ideal location for solar energy (https://www.electricrate.com/solar-energy/california/). In 2024, the solar industry in California is projected to be valued at $5.9 billion (https://www.ibisworld.com/us/industry/california/solar-power/11005/).

As the solar industry has grown, so too have regulations surrounding it. Setback requirements dictate how far solar panels must be from roads, property lines, and existing buildings. These laws are intended to mitigate issues like aesthetic impacts and fire risks associated with large-scale solar facilities.

Recently, stricter setback laws were passed in California, increasing the required distance between solar projects and certain sensitive areas. This has led to heated debate, with the solar industry claiming it will severely hamper future growth.

Previous Setback Laws

California first passed solar access laws in the late 1970s with the goal of protecting consumers’ right to install solar panels. The 1978 Solar Rights Act prohibited homeowners associations (HOAs) from imposing unreasonable restrictions on solar installations and gave homeowners the right to sue neighbors whose trees blocked their solar panels (California’s Solar Rights Act, p3). This law was followed by the Solar Shade Control Act of 1979, which prohibited planting vegetation that would shade more than 10% of a solar collector on a neighboring property during certain hours of the day (California’s Solar Shade Control Act, p5).

These original setback laws were in effect for over 30 years until revisions were made in 2015. The purpose of the initial 10% shade restrictions was to balance solar access with other property rights and avoid nuisance lawsuits over minor shading issues. However, the laws were criticized for being vague and difficult to enforce (California’s Solar Rights Act, p20).

New Setback Laws

In January 2023, new setback laws for solar panels went into effect in California as part of the 2022 California Fire Code (source). The new laws require solar panels to be set back at least 3 feet from the edge of the roof on new homes and commercial buildings in wildfire hazard areas.

new solar panel setback laws in california aim to reduce fire risks

Previously, there were no statewide setback requirements for solar panels in California. Some local jurisdictions had adopted their own setback rules, but most areas did not have any setback laws (source).

The 2022 Fire Code established a statewide setback standard for the first time. The 3 foot setback rule aims to mitigate fire risks associated with solar panels, such as panels detaching from roofs during high winds and preventing access for aerial firefighting. The setbacks provide a buffer zone around panels to allow for roof ventilation and firefighter operations.

Impact on Solar Growth

There is a clear consensus that new setback laws have negatively impacted residential solar installation in California, leading to a significant decline in growth. According to a recent report from Wood Mackenzie, permits for residential solar in California are projected to fall 15% in 2023 after the new setback laws were finalized last year (1). Another analysis projects solar installations will be about 20% lower over the next five years compared to previous forecasts (2).

Hard data confirms these projections. In the first quarter after the new setback laws took effect, residential solar installations declined 18% year-over-year (3). The Solar Energy Industries Association found that the changes will lead to a 54% reduction in small solar installations under 10 kilowatts, primarily impacting residential homes (1). Overall, California’s share of the national residential solar market is expected to drop from over 50% to 30% due to the new laws (2).

The longer payback period for solar investments, from 5-6 years to 14-15 years, is dampening consumer interest (3). Previously, robust solar incentives in California drove substantial growth. But with those incentives now lowered, residential solar adoption is slowing at a concerning rate.


(1) https://www.cnet.com/home/energy-and-utilities/net-metering-changes-in-california-how-will-they-impact-you/

(2) https://thecuriouseconomist.com/californias-solar-setback-incentive-cuts-dim-the-shine-on-rooftop-solar/

(3) https://www.sandiegouniontribune.com/business/energy-green/story/2024-01-04/opponents-of-californias-new-solar-rules-seek-a-rehearing

Opposition to the Changes

The solar industry strongly opposed the new setback laws in California. Groups like the California Solar & Storage Association (CALSSA) and the Coalition for Community Solar Access filed a petition in late December 2022 asking state regulators to rehear the case, citing concerns about the impact on rooftop solar growth.

“We remain concerned about the damaging impacts this decision will have in decimating California’s world-leading distributed solar market,” said CALSSA policy director Brad Heavner. (https://www.latimes.com/business/story/2023-01-20/california-slashed-rooftop-solar-payments-now-opponents-seek-rehearing)

The main concerns from solar advocates were that the reduced bill credits for rooftop solar customers would disincentivize new installations, slowing the growth in residential solar at a time when California is trying to rapidly decarbonize its energy supply. They argued the new rules undermine state climate goals and previous efforts to encourage rooftop solar adoption.

“California’s landmark net metering program has helped more than 1.3 million households, schools, farms and businesses meet their energy needs with reliable, local, pollution-free energy,” said SEIA state affairs director Walker Wright. “This decision abandons California’s leadership in the clean energy transition.” (https://calmatters.org/environment/2022/12/california-solar-rules-overhauled/)

Support for the Changes

Proponents of the new setback laws, including firefighters and many lawmakers, argue the changes are necessary for fire safety. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) supported increased setback requirements to mitigate fire risks and improve firefighter access.

According to the 2022 California Fire Code, “For photovoltaic arrays occupying more than 33 percent of the plan view total roof area, a setback of not less than 36 inches (457 mm) wide is required on both sides of a ridge in order to allow smoke ventilation opportunity.” [1]

Lawmakers who voted in favor of the new regulations said it was a prudent measure to prevent roof fires from spreading as quickly. They argue solar panels can accelerate the spread of fire when installed too densely. The laws provide emergency responders more space to cut ventilation holes and spray water to contain roof fires.

Supporters say the additional setback space is a minor concession for significantly improving fire safety. They believe it strikes the right balance between expanding solar power and protecting against fire risks worsened by climate change.

Other States’ Setback Laws

California’s new setback laws are considered more restrictive compared to many other states across the country. According to research from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), there is wide variation in solar panel setback requirements at the state and local levels [1].

For example, in Florida there are no statewide laws governing rooftop solar panel placement. Local jurisdictions have the authority to implement their own solar setback requirements. The city of Orlando mandates a 3 foot setback from the edge of the roof, which is less restrictive than the new 5 foot minimum setback in parts of California [2].

Massachusetts also does not have a statewide solar setback law. However, many localities have implemented setback ordinances, such as requiring panels be placed at least 3 feet from the roof edge and ridge [3]. Again, this is less restrictive than California’s new standards.

While some states are less restrictive, there are places with more limitations on solar placement. For instance, New Hampshire prohibits installing solar panels on the front side of a roof facing the street. Overall, California’s new setback requirements are considered relatively strict nationally.

Looking Ahead

The future of solar panel setback laws in California remains uncertain. On one hand, some local governments may seek to expand setbacks further to address neighbor complaints and land use concerns. Large setbacks reduce the amount of a property’s usable area for solar, which could hamper growth. But on the other hand, the solar industry and environmental advocates will likely pressure policymakers to relax these laws over time, arguing they are detrimental to meeting renewable energy goals.

California has ambitious targets to generate 100% of its electricity from carbon-free sources by 2045. However, some analyses suggest these new setback laws could reduce the state’s distributed solar capacity potential by 9-14% compared to no setbacks. This may require greater reliance on large-scale solar farms on vacant land to make up the difference. But locating solar farms far from population centers creates grid integration and transmission challenges.

Looking ahead, California will need to balance multiple competing policy priorities. Preserving local control over land use, supporting continued solar growth, meeting renewable targets, maintaining grid reliability and addressing neighbor concerns are all important goals. There are no easy solutions. While setbacks may expand modestly, most experts believe it’s unlikely they would become so large as to completely stall the rooftop solar industry. But they may shift more emphasis to ground-mounted solar farms. The outcome may ultimately depend on whether new technologies, business models or policy tools can reduce land use conflicts and concerns over time.

Arguments For and Against Setbacks

The debate over solar panel setbacks involves balancing the growth of renewable energy with local concerns about aesthetics and property values. On one side, the solar industry argues that restrictive setbacks impede the adoption of solar and make installations more expensive (Solar Power Purchase Agreements can make solar more affordable). They claim panels are not eyesores if properly screened and maintained.

Homeowners and local governments counter that large solar installations can be unsightly, negatively impacting views and curb appeal. They want the ability to regulate panel placement through reasonable setbacks. There are also concerns that solar owners may neglect maintenance over decades.

Compromises set specific aesthetic requirements while allowing solar growth. For example, setbacks could increase with installation size. Landscaping or fencing could be mandated to shield views. Standards for upkeep could be enacted. With cooperation, communities can embrace clean energy while preserving local aesthetics and quality of life.


In summary, California’s recent adoption of larger setbacks for solar panels has sparked debate about how to balance renewable energy growth with concerns like aesthetics and fire safety. While the previous setback laws allowed solar panels as close as 5 feet from property lines in residential areas, the new laws require setbacks of 30 feet in very high fire hazard zones and 15 feet in high fire hazard zones.

Supporters argue these changes are necessary to protect neighborhoods and prevent fires, but opponents say it will severely restrict the number of homes that can install solar. Looking ahead, more states may consider similar setback regulations as solar expands across the country. Overall there are reasonable arguments on both sides, so policymakers will need to strike the right balance between enabling solar adoption while addressing local impacts.

In conclusion, larger setbacks present challenges for solar growth, but thoughtful regulations can potentially allow renewable energy to keep expanding while protecting other important interests. With some compromise from all stakeholders, California and other states pursuing clean energy have a chance to find a middle ground. The ultimate goal remains rapidly transitioning away from fossil fuels, and new setback laws are just one part of that complex process.

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