An article in a recent Sunday Age raised the issue of development overshadowing solar panels on neighbouring properties.  While the State Planning Policy Framework in all planning schemes seeks to encourage land use and development that is energy efficient and minimises greenhouse gas emissions, at the moment the Schemes provides little guidance in respect of the overshadowing of solar panels.

There have been a number of Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT) decisions in relation to this matter.  Some of these decisions include Ampower Investments Pty Ltd v Yarra CC [2010] VCAT 1587 (24 September 2010); Bocquet & Ors v Yarra CC [2009] VCAT 2294 (30 October 2009); Portas v Whitehorse CC [2012] VCAT 26 (10 January 2012).  While these decisions have not taken a standard approach to dealing with this issue, a common thread in all has been an acknowledgment that there is a lack of planning policy guidance on the matter.

At the moment these decisions have been largely based on the impact of a development on the ability of the existing solar panels to generate electricity.  This has related to the extent of shadow expected over the neighbouring solar panels and the time of year when this shadow occurs.  For example, shadow impacts in the winter months have been seen to have less impact as the solar panels do not generate as much power at this time – although this may ignore the importance of sunny winter days to ‘charge the batteries’.  Another issue is a lack of expert evidence on how solar panel effectiveness may be compromised by a development.

Conversely, there seems to be little guidance on the placement of solar panels to meet the solar demands of the landowner while not compromising the development rights of neighbours.

It is evident that the lack of policy in the Scheme does not provide for a consistent planning approach on the issue.  Guidance is required to balance the right of a person to develop their land and the right of an adjoining lot owner to have reasonable sunlight access to their solar panels.  It will be important though that any such policy guidance does not create a situation where solar panels are not used so as not to compromise the development potential of adjacent lots.

As with many planning issues, this is a complex matter. With the increased number of solar panels and solar hot water systems on properties of all types in response to rising costs of electricity prices and to meet energy rating requirements, it can be expected that this will become a common planning issue in the next few years.  It will be even more imperative where houses rely on solar panels only for their electrical energy although admittedly, more likely to be in non-urban areas removed from the grid.