The two major impediments to homeowners installing solar panels on their roofs are financing and aesthetics. We have talked with a lot of homeowners and the discussion always seems to revolve around these two issues.
On the financing side, some homeowners are interested in solar energy systems but they may not be able to shell out a load of money upfront, even if they will enjoy years of savings. Yes, they will save a couple of hundred bucks a month, but they have to fork over $20,000 – $30,000 for a solar energy system. More enlightened homeowners will do the calculations and realize that there are some serious economic advantages, but the upfront payment dissuades the masses.
And then there is the intangible aesthetics issue. A crystalline solar panel does not exude beauty but in the hands of a talented designer, the panels can mirror the lines of the roof and be no more unsightly than a mismatched asphalt shingle roof. Nevertheless, the appearance of home solar panels on residential roofs has pitted homeowners against their homeowner associations and against historic preservation advocates.
And this debate has hit very close to home where I live in Washington, D.C. As reported in The Northwest Current (May 30, 2012), the historic preservation board in Washington, D.C. has approved more than 200 applications for solar panel systems on historic district homes, but now a homeowner has applied to install a system on a sloping roof from which the solar panels would be partially visible from the street. According to the article, the homeowner is interested in installing the solar panels “on the hip roof of his home to reduce his family’s carbon footprint and to produce clean energy.”
The advisory neighborhood commission weighed in in favor of the solar panels. The article quoted the commission as asking the homeowner to work with the historic preservation office to find a solution and the office should “continue to develop design protocols which would facilitate appropriate use of energy-saving solar panel installations.”
The designer of the solar panel system reconfigured the layout to minimize the number of panels visible to the street, but the board responded that it should eliminate all of the panels visible to the street. The historic review board suggested that the homeowner should look at other solar options such as thin film panels or roof shingles, but it was clearly not well informed that these options are hardly practicable for this kind of installation.
The rigid formulation left little room for the homeowner to compromise. The article quoted architectural historian Anne Brockett as saying that the preservation office supports solar systems so long as they are not visible from the street: “The board’s standards are very clear. [Solar panels] must not be visible from a public street.” Otherwise, they represent an “incompatible change” to the historic preservation,” Brockett was quoted as saying.
The Northwest Current reported on the confused outcome in its June 6, 2012 issue. The historic preservation board voted down the plan to install the panels on the 1906 home. In an uninformed debated, one member apparently doubted the energy savings. The article quoted the member as saying “Not every new technology, just because it’s the cool thing, should be used.” Another said, “In five years, there will be technological advancement that will make this discussion obsolete.” Oh yes, tell me where to invest in that company. The decisions left not only the homeowner “shaking his head,” but probably also the installer and other renewable energy advocates.
The educational challenge remains tough. On its editorial page, the Northwest Current rightly observed that the board vote “makes solar impossible for many owners in historic districts.” The editorial board concluded that the “city should come up with an accommodation that would allow more solar panels in historic districts. .. [R]esponsible renovations…should not be simply prohibited.”
What may today be an eye sore is the architectural masterpiece of tomorrow. But the solar industry could also do more to make more attractive panels that integrate well into roof materials (I think that the acceptance of building integrated photovoltaic, known as BIPV or roof shingles is a long ways off) and installation designs could meld better into roof designs. Much education has to be done on both sides and with increased understanding, solar designs can blossom in historic districts.