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Solar panels & other renewables in historic districts

April 14, 2010

The Beach Haven, NJ Historic Preservation Commission recently asked Preservation New Jersey to provide a one-day training session for their nine members and alternates, and had some specific topics they wanted to cover.  We were happy to spend the day with an enthusiastic and knowledgeable group, and were able to cover legal, procedural and design review issues, as well as the topic of immediate interest: how to address the increasing number of property owner inquiries or applications for solar panel installations.

Preservationists in general, and preservation commissions particularly, are often wary or downright antagonistic toward solar panels, and in many cases, they/we are right to be.  Not too long ago, giant, lawn-sized satellite dishes were the technological bugaboos of review commissions: visually intrusive and downright ugly.  But, like dishes, renewables like photovoltaic (solar) panels will be an essential part of our future.  And New Jersey state law now confers “inherently beneficial use” status to wind, solar and photovoltaic facilities.  So, we are going to have to find ways to accommodate them.

There are, however, several responses that HPCs and preservationists can have to proposals for solar installations.  First question to ask: what steps have been taken to retrofit the building for energy efficiency?  As our colleague Patrice Frey at the National Trust’s Preservation Green Lab says “(not starting with energy retrofits) is basically like cranking up your super-efficient heating system and keeping all the windows open in the dead of winter – you’re missing out on the real emissions reductions.”

Second:  even if we cannot deny a photovoltaic installation outright, the location of an installation is very much a valid question.  Placement of solar panels on a rear-facing roof elevation, out of view of the public right-of-way, is just one possible solution to  limit visibility and intrusion.

Photo: This Old House

Third: the technology is changing and improving constantly.  Check out these solar shingles, for example. And, remember those giant satellite dishes on folks’ front lawns?  Dishes are now very small and far less obtrusive.  Solar capturing installations will evolve in the same way.  Plus, appropriately installed, the panels are a reversible addition.  That meets preservation standards.

A blog by Scientific American‘s George Musser, “Are Old Houses Doo0med?” that  has been making the rounds lately poses the following: “…if old houses can’t be brought up to modern standards, their very survival is at stake. Saving them may mean bending preservation standards.”  Historic Preservation Commissions and preservation advocates are going to need to think carefully about how to align our preservation values with community values of sustainability and energy efficiency.  New and better technology will come along, and we’ll have protected the historic assets we cherish.   George Musser calls on us to take the long view.

For the Preservation Green Lab’s view. click here.

We want to hear your story.  Preservation New Jersey wants to know if your commission or preservation organization is facing these issues, and how you’re addressing them.  Post a comment here, or on our Facebook page.

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