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City council closer to easing requirements on solar panel installations

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City council members are a step closer to approving zoning ordinance amendments that will make for an easier process to installing solar panels easier.

St. Paul had to come up with new zoning language for solar energy systems as part of a 2008 Department of Energy grant.

The changes approved Wednesday evening allow solar roof installations to rise 3 feet above the height of a roof, in line with standards used in Minneapolis. Under the changed ordinance, St. Paul would not always require screening to reduce visibility of rooftop equipment. Instead it would ask those installing solar systems to reduce the "visual impact," perhaps by integrating them into the roof design.

Local solar energy advocates said while they support many aspects of the new policy, they worry the term "visual impact" is subjective and could be used to restrict solar energy installations.

But St. Paul resident Ralph Jacobson, a solar panel installer with Innovative Power Systems, spoke in favor of the amended ordinance.

"I appreciate the effort to provide a little bit of control and guidance to the process because you do run into somebody who doesn't care and might hire us to do some God-awful thing," Jacobson said.

David Boyce, chair of the Minnesota Renewable Energy Society, told council members he's still concerned.

"Visual impact — I am concerned about the very subjective nature of that and how it's going to be applied throughout the various districts of our city," Boyce said.

Jacobson said some customers may have a problem with the ordinance's ban on solar installations in some front yards. Council members may re-evaluate that part of the ordinance before is comes up for final approval on Oct. 26.