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OPINION: From Potential to Power: How Canada Can Lead with Solar Energy Legislation - The Hill Times

May 31, 2024

The urgent global shift towards sustainable energy solutions has spotlighted solar energy as a pivotal component in the design of high-performance buildings and neighborhoods. In many respects, countries like Canada are on the forefront, developing codes to promote renewable energy with rigorous efficiency standards similar to those seen across Europe. However, despite these advances, a significant gap remains in regulatory and policy frameworks that both protect solar access and establish concrete solar rights.

Research conducted in Canada alongside Italy, Norway, Sweden, and Switzerland identifies a pressing need for multi-scale regulatory approaches that cater to local, state, and national levels. It is crucial to consider regional constraints to effectively integrate renewable energy generation into existing infrastructure.

Controlling Shading: Key to Solar Access

Ensuring solar access requires a blend of regulations aimed at controlling shading from adjacent structures and vegetation. Regulations should limit building heights and ensure buildings are spaced sufficiently apart to prevent mutual shading. Additionally, zoning and land-use codes need to protect solar access against future obstructions while promoting legal rights that guarantee sunlight for property owners and limit obstructions from neighboring properties. Solar rights involve regulations granting property owners the legal ability to harness solar radiation on their property. These rights should protect against unreasonable restrictions on the installation of solar technologies, undue shading, or other interference, while also limiting legal and zoning barriers that could restrict solar installations, as long as they comply with reasonable aesthetic and safety standards.

A woman with long dark hair in a black shirt Caroline Hachem-Vermette. Photo by David Ward

Neighborhoods of the Future: Mixed-Use and Solar-Optimized

The importance of solar exposure must be recognized in urban planning. This involves optimizing the orientation of buildings and streets and regulating building density to maximize both active and passive solar energy potential. Land-use planning should encourage mixed-use neighborhoods to enhance solar energy utilization through complementary demand profiles, considering the importance of building density, spacing, and height in capturing solar energy. This approach not only avoids shading issues but also promotes the aesthetic integration of solar solutions.

Grid Modernization: Technical Standards for Solar Integration

Modernizing the electrical grid for effective solar integration necessitates the establishment of technical standards governing the interconnection of solar systems to ensure safety and reliability while minimizing administrative barriers. There should also be regulations and standards for integrating energy storage systems, like batteries, with solar installations to optimize energy storage and utilization. We do not have to start with a blank canvas, as many jurisdictions around the world have already fully addressed grid modernization regulations and standards.  Additionally, regulations for solar-integrated microgrids should ensure they meet specific performance criteria and align with energy policies at local, regional, and national levels.

Empowering Innovation with Regulatory and Financial Tools

Technological innovation is advancing at an unprecedented pace, often outstripping the capacity of our regulatory frameworks to adapt. This mismatch can inadvertently penalize innovators, rather than fostering an environment of encouragement. To truly support and accelerate technological advancements, we must reform our regulatory processes. Introducing mechanisms to fast-track crucial technological updates and adaptations is essential. Consider the battery industry as a case in point: current regulations often address rare fire risks without accounting for advancements in battery chemistry that mitigate these risks. These outdated regulations apply blanket restrictions to all types of batteries, stifling innovation in safer battery technologies. By refining these regulations to reflect contemporary scientific understanding, we can better support innovation while maintaining safety standards.

Incorporating economic incentives into governmental regulations is vital to support the solar industry. This should include incentives in the form of tax credits, rebates, and grants, which must be regularly reviewed to remain effective. Developing innovative business models and adjustments in utility rate structures, such as net metering and time-of-use pricing, are necessary to support solar use. Additionally, expanding access to solar energy through community solar programs and energy storage solutions, especially for low-income households, is crucial.

As we refine building and setback regulations, it is essential to enhance solar access and codify these changes into enforceable laws that define and protect solar rights and the performance of solar technologies. Establishing standards for solar system connections and microgrid designs will support necessary grid updates and enhancements. With rapid technological and market changes, the integration and regular updating of financial incentives are paramount.

As Canada and the world at large contend with the dual challenges of climate change and energy security, these strategic recommendations offer a roadmap for legislating a sustainable, solar-powered future. Our commitment to these changes now will define our energy landscape for decades to come.

Caroline Hachem-Vermette is an associate professor at the Department of Building, Civil and Environmental Engineering at Concordia University’s Gina Cody School of Engineering and Computer Science in Montreal, QC. She is leading a subtask on developing strategies for net-zero energy solar communities, within the Solar Heating & Cooling Programme - International Energy Agency Task 63 Solar Neighborhood Planning.


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