28 January 2020

Solar panels vs. historic preservation committees

As reported in the Washington Post:
It is a debate playing out in towns and cities across the country, as the priorities of historic districts collide with the growing enthusiasm for clean energy. From the Great Lakes to the Black Hills, property owners worried about climate change find themselves debating the fine points of dormer contours and shingle color with preservationists worried about architectural integrity.

The conflict is especially acute in Washington, where a concerted push for solar is taking place amid historic preservation agencies that in their territorial and procedural complexity rival the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros. Some permit seekers have found themselves snarled for months, or even years, trying to convince regulators of the aesthetic merits of proposed solar installations...

Green said she has no problem with existing historic district regulations that allow solar cells on flat roofs, where they cannot be seen from the street. But she believes it would be a mistake to permit installations on sloped roofs like those visible on the facades of many bungalows in her neighborhood...

“I think people just get stuck in trying to preserve a certain look when, gosh, I mean, we do have to evolve,” Stanslaw said. “If that is going to require that we change our views on what is aesthetically pleasing, we really have to find some common ground.”
When we moved into a Madison subdivision twenty years ago, the neighborhood association guidelines allowed solar panels but advised placing them in inconspicuous locations, out of view from the street.  This past year one neighbor retrofitted his house and garage roofs with dozens of panels directly facing the street, with no objections from anyone.  But perhaps a 40-year old subdivision is different from a 200-year-old one.


  1. I'd err on the side of preserving historic beauty, especially since in these cases the environmental gain is so marginal.

    Why not use that money to fund a community solar project that's out of the way? This would likely be larger than one or two solar panels on a roof, making the economics of the project better from an energy generation perspective.

  2. I'm going to take the other side of this argument, and say that while history is very important, it's more important to do EVERYTHING we can to ensure that future generations actually have a history. That includes using solar and other renewable, non-polluting energy sources whenever and wherever possible. Yes, even on historic buildings, as painful as that is for me to say. Eventually and inevitably, history has to make way for the future, or the future never happens.

    1. Yes indeed, we can't have plumbing roof stacks for these modern toilets decimating the beautiful value of a straight roof line. Don't dare add a ramp or hand rails where they would not have been 200 years ago, handicap people would not have been there anyways. Or let alone have *gasp* electrical lines attach to the house... the cut-off point is always arbitrary.

  3. DC may have the name of being a very progressive city, but sadly, the wealthy in the city are very good at abusing 'historic preservation' boards as NIMBY tools. And because DC is an odd city/state/district with a lot of Federal influence, the amount of hurdles that need to be taken can seem endless.

    See here a local article: https://ggwash.org/view/70784/in-a-shift-front-facing-takoma-solar-panels-win-dc-historic-preservation-hprb-approval
    and an recent update:

    The WaPo is probably reporting because the (newly democratic) VA legislature is currently trying to decide whether it should overrule HOAs banning solar cells from rooftops (with some exceptions).


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