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Solar panels versus historic districts: A conflict we need to resolve

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Solar panels on historic houseEditor’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

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  1. 1. dskan 2:27 pm 07/28/2010

    Sounds to me like this doesn’t have much to do with solar permitting, and instead is about an obnoxious neighbour who doesn’t like solar panelling.

    Link to this
  2. 2. lamorpa 3:25 pm 07/28/2010

    The reality is, historic districts would be a perfect place to limit these toys for the rich. PV panels create a larger environmental load that they can ever pay back unless they are in large, managed, maintained, dedicated-for-the-long-term (>25 yrs) installations. Throwing up a couple of PVs on the back roof to show off your green’ness until you get tired of dealing with them in a year or so is just a way to waste resources and create nasty manufacturing byproducts.

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  3. 3. solargarden 9:00 pm 07/28/2010

    Our town’s historic district overcame the solar roof problem.
    A group of town residents pooled our money to fund a large, jointly owned, 20 yr. out installation by contracting with a church in town to use their large, south facing roof. The church agreed to host our panels and pay us for the electricity we produce. This is only one model of how this can be done to preserve the historic character of a town. The idea of virtual net metering which is available citizens in the states of Mass. and Colorado is a more straightforward solution … more states should adopt this idea.

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  4. 4. lamorpa 9:05 pm 07/28/2010

    @solargarden: Do you have a link to details about this installation? The concept sounds very well thought out and implemented.

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  5. 5. KenOatman 9:14 pm 07/28/2010

    I’d like to hear comments about how progressive historic districts around North America have already addressed this, because no one needs to reinvent the wheel. It’s a fairly simple problem.

    Here’s my story:

    In Louisville, Colorado, Downtown Historic District officials were receptive to the idea of solar when we approached them last year.

    They seemed to "get it"things like utility meters, conduit, satellite dishes, telephone poles, signs, parking meters etc., are part of modern life. It’s possible to embrace changes, yet minimize their visual clutter with sensible guidelines. The Louisville attitude was to welcome solar as forward-thinking infrastructure, well worth green-lighting. Practically a no-brainer.

    Of course, my solar installation company first assured them that we would engineer the most aesthetic, flush, balanced-looking system possible. In fact, we’d probably help the District research and write a fair solar design code, using examples from how other preservation districts. We already do the same thing to help HOAs develop their own guidelines.

    Not surprisingly, modern solar PV (electricity) systems are often confused with the awkward solar thermal (hot water plumbing) from the 70′s/early ’80′s.

    Those bulky, solar hot water panels often looked hand-made, and were tilted up at a high angle by industrial struts. Many fell into disrepair, broken but left on top of houses for years. They are still discussed, and disliked, to this day.

    Thus, historic districts need to be educated about how sleek the latest modules are. If you search Google for the Lumos Solar "Project X", you’ll see a great example of how solar module design is evolving. It’s a frameless, very low profile PV panel. It’s literally gorgeous, but also nondescript. With these, you can build a monolithic, glossy black, rectangular masterpiece that would update any dowdy mansion with a low-key, yet hip vibe.

    Does anyone have another cool historic district story?

    P.S. To the Commenter above, No, manufacturing PV panels isn’t a perfectly clean operation. But the commenter above isn’t being genuine about how much coal PV prevents from getting burned. It’s not perfect, but it’s an extremely positive step towards limiting per capita resource use.

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  6. 6. solargarden 9:25 pm 07/28/2010

    Here is our website:
    and we were written up at this link as well

    Link to this
  7. 7. solargarden 9:29 pm 07/28/2010

    Here is our website:
    and we were written up at this link as well

    Link to this
  8. 8. lamorpa 10:28 am 07/29/2010

    @KenOatman: "P.S. To the Commenter above, No, manufacturing PV panels isn’t a perfectly clean operation. But the commenter above isn’t being genuine about how much coal PV prevents from getting burned. It’s not perfect, but it’s an extremely positive step towards limiting per capita resource use."

    No, PV panels ARE particularly resource and toxic byproduct intensive in their manufacturing (not even including their transportation, installation, operation, and disposal). Unless installed in an efficient (large), long-term application, they are net-negative energy (even setting aside the manufacturing waste product handling). Home-based applications almost always end up falling out of use within 3-5 years, which, depending on what is included in your analysis, is at the net loss or barely break-even point.

    I am very worried about the negative environmental impact of ‘weekend greeners’ who’s main effect is to show off and help the local PV installation company make a few bucks. I know this is extremely negative, but then again so is wasting natural resources and polluting the Earth.

    It is very refreshing to hear the story above from solargarden. This kind of installation is precisely how PV benefits are achieved.

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  9. 9. GreenovationTV 10:02 pm 08/12/2010

    Solar is slowly overcoming some steep barriers. We must find a way to support historic districts while working with historic district commissions to streamline approval of renewable projects.

    We are on the verge of becoming the first home to achieve net-zero energy in a historic district – as well as the oldest home in America to achieve net zero energy. You can see an introductory video here: http://www.Greenovation.TV as well as in USA Today:

    Historic commissions must be educated on the design, functionality and aesthetics of solar. Why bother preserving history if we don’t protect our future. As Thoreau once said "what use is a fine house if you haven’t got a tolerable planet to put it on?"

    I’d like to hear from others about their experiences with historic commissions. We will be meeting with our state and local commissions to emphasize the urgency of saving old homes and making them more sustainable and correct misunderstandings about solar. We should err on the side of protecting our future rather than on the aesthetics of a solar panel installed over an asphalt roof. It does seem like a double standard that a district would allow vinyl siding but deny solar.

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  10. 10. klkooles 3:44 pm 08/19/2010

    Many historic preservation commissions are staffed with volunteers from a variety of professions: architects, preservationists, lawyers, contractors, real estate agents, and even green design professionals. These commissioners often go through a serious of training processes prior to appointment to the local commission. Keep in mind that the training they receive includes local ordinances, preservation enabling legislation, federal historic preservation laws, and standards administered by the Department of the Interior. So if they are reviewing, and possibly denying, your application for solar or any other alteration to your historic property, it is most often because it does not fall under the permissible scope of these regulatory powers…not because they are the pretty police or don’t love the planet.

    Educational opportunities for commissioners AND homeowners about both sides of the line would be beneficial and are starting to increase in availability.

    Solar panels can, and often are, successfully installed on historic properties within historic districts across the nation. Early communication with your local commission will ensure that the process goes as smoothly as possible, and each municipality has their own nuances regarding visibility of panels from the public right of way.

    And as John Ruskin said "They [buildings of past times] are not ours. They belong, partly to those who built them, and partly to all the generations of mankind who are to follow us"

    Preservation and renewables can work together…instead of solely working to correct just the perceived misunderstanding of solar by preservationists, perhaps there is also a misunderstanding of preservation by solar professionals as well that must be addressed

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  11. 11. eflood91 8:46 am 09/23/2010

    Which is more important, preserving the past or preparing for the future? In this situation, it seems to me that environmental technology trumps the emptiness of a roofline. Without a doubt historic buildings deserve to be treated with reverence and respect, and should be recognized for their unique structural beauty. But the environment we dwell within deserves just as much praise and recognition, if not more. The environment deserves to have clean water. The environment deserves to have pristine air. The environment deserves to have healthy inhabitants. Why would we question and denounce the use of environmental technology because of its aesthetics on our buildings? Historic structure or not, we are guests of Mother Earth and she has been such an amazing hostess. We should care more for her welfare than the position of a solar panel on an old house.

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  12. 12. TechProj 3:28 pm 09/23/2010

    Carbon emissions around the world are a huge problem that must be controlled. Environmental experts say the United States itself needs to cut emissions by 80% in order to make progress. This implies huge changes in the way that we harness and use energy not only for our corporate hundred-story buildings but for the millions of homes across the country as well. With this being said, historic towns and communities should lower their requirements and allow solar panels to be placed on the roofs of homes. Solar energy is a great way to lower carbon emissions, and while it may not do too much, everything helps when it comes to taking care of our planet. I understand that these communities want to preserve their history and the originality of their homes, but we must do our part and protect our future as well.

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  13. 13. SARA999 12:10 pm 09/30/2010

    While oil recourses are running out, every hour the sun produces 6000 times the energy consumed by the whole population for an entire year. The energy we obtain is not only free but sustainable also and no harmful gases are produced in the process. There is a lot of benefits for us by utilizing solar energy. We are not only reducing the greenhouse gases, but saving your own money on energy bills.

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