July 28, 2010 | 13
Editor’s Note: Scientific American’s George Musser will be chronicling his experiences installing solar panels in Solar at Home (formerly 60-Second Solar). Read his introduction here and see all posts here.
A few posts ago, I talked about the tragic conflict between preserving historic homes and reducing their carbon footprint. I thought our solar array had managed to evade the controversy. Our panels were mounted on the rear of our mid-19th-century house, away from the street; the town’s building department, after some delay, approved the project; and the town’s inspectors signed off on the work when it was done. But two months ago I received an alarming notice from the town’s building code enforcer: our array violated the historic district standards.
As readers of this blog may recall, we had a lot of trouble with our installer, 1st Light Energy, and the person who ran our project was fired last year. His replacement is responsive and really knows his stuff. After he mopped up the problems created by his predecessor, I was inclined to feel that all’s well that ends well — until we got that letter.
The problem was that because of the tilt of the panels, the top edge of one of them was visible from across the street (see photo). The installer quickly accepted blame, although I think the building department bore some responsibility, too. After all, our permit application mentioned the array tilt and mounting location, and the department was supposed to have informed us of potential historic issues before they issued the permit.
Our town prides itself on working things out in a non-lawyerly way, so I didn’t want to respond by saying, "You approved it, so go away." Nor did I want to invoke a recently passed New Jersey law that relaxes local planning strictures for renewable energy projects. I’m committed to our historic district. That said, I couldn’t help feeling the victim of a double standard. Elsewhere in town, people have built questionable house additions, contractors have torn down old homes, and a developer built a mini-mall that required a huge number of variances. Here we were, faced with the threat of removing our array because of one errant panel that you wouldn’t notice unless you were actively looking for it.
My wife and our contact at 1st Light went before the town’s Historic Preservation Commission to plead our case. In the end, what defused the crisis was that there was extra space on the roof, so the installer could relocate the errant panel. The utility’s lawyer said the modification would be fine (it wouldn’t trigger a full reassessment of the array), and indeed it doesn’t seem to have reduced the system’s power output.
Nonetheless, this incident shows that towns are still climbing up the learning curve when it comes to solar permitting. For many houses in our town, the historic district rules out solar panels, period. And that’s a problem. We don’t have the luxury to choose between environmental conservation and architectural conservation. We need both.
The errant solar panel, before relocation; photo courtesy of George Musser