The dropping cost of solar panels, combined with their promotion by federal and local officials, have brought the sun’s energy within reach of American homeowners as never before. But some D.C. residents trying to embrace solar power are finding themselves at odds with the city’s powerful historic preservation officials, who wield regulatory power over tens of thousands of buildings.
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.
At an October meeting of the Historic Preservation Review Board, one applicant from the Takoma neighborhood questioned whether global warming might make the visual appeal of his American Foursquare home moot.
“My main concern right now,” Steven Preister said, “is if we do not change and loosen these standards, will the District be habitable in 100 years?”
His application was rejected.
Board members reversed themselves in December, signing off on the project after Preister agreed to spend additional money on wrappers that would camouflage the solar cells on the front-facing part of his roof. The board also adopted new standards last month that may provide greater flexibility installing solar atop historic homes.
But both supporters and opponents of expanding solar panels in historic neighborhoods say the new rules are ambiguous. To complicate matters, would-be solar installers may have to seek approval from two other federal organizations — the Old Georgetown Board and U.S. Commission of Fine Arts — depending on where they live.
The D.C. Council and mayor last year launched an aggressive push to convert the city to entirely renewable energy sources by 2032, a plan that calls for 10 percent of that energy to be generated by solar panels. Tommy Wells, director of the D.C. Department of Energy and Environment, said those goals will be hard enough to reach without historic preservationists and green-power advocates working at cross purposes.
“Having, truly, the most ambitious goals in the nation for solar deployment within an urban area, that means that we will need as much surface area as possible for solar panels,” Wells said. “A nearly impossible goal was even further out of reach if we started exempting roof space.”
Some historic preservationists say they are being unfairly blamed, the latest targets of a doctrinaire urbanism that does not always look kindly on old, single-family homes.
“We’re responsible for the gentrification, there’s no affordable housing — so they say,” said Sara Green, a Takoma resident who worries about the effects of liberalizing historic preservation standards to allow more solar panels. “Now we’re killing polar bears.”
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.
“The impact on the polar bears or on climate change is extremely minor,” Green said. “However, the impact of putting solar panels on front-facing elevations in the Takoma historic district is enormous.”
‘You just throw up your hands’
To Marcis Turner, putting solar panels on his 1938 brick rowhouse in Anacostia made sense. A 45-year-old building engineer, Turner liked the idea of doing his small part to cut carbon emissions. He also liked the idea of lowering his monthly electricity bills, which could reach $200 as his window air-conditioning units rattled through the District’s long summers.
He secured a contractor and settled on a design. But on the eve of installation, he learned that the city’s Historic Preservation Office objected to the placement of the structural beams supporting the panels.
Turner didn’t grasp the logic behind this aesthetic judgment — other buildings in his neighborhood are literally crumbling from neglect — but he said his contractor told him that adjusting the design wasn’t feasible, and he had no desire to spend time appealing the decision.
“It just was one of those things where you just throw up your hands,” he said.
Solar installers say they often hear similar sentiments among prospective customers unwilling to navigate the historic review process. Even when there is hope that the nine-member preservation review board might overrule a staff denial, the conditions it imposes can dramatically change the efficiency and economics of a project.
“It’s something that an installer isn’t going to want to deal with, and it’s something that the homeowner probably can’t deal with,” said Kyle Yost, co-founder of the installation firm DC Solar. “Currently, it takes a customer who really wants to drive it through to make it happen.”
Mark Chandler and Laurie Wingate applied for solar panels on the roof of their home in Cleveland Park in 2012. After multiple appearances before the historic review board, they finally won approval for a scaled-back installation that Chandler estimated is generating about half as much power as the project they originally proposed.
Steve Callcott, deputy preservation officer at the District’s Office of Planning, said 1,500 properties in historic districts have obtained solar permits. Of those, he said, just over a dozen have come before the board for review. Callcott said he could not provide information on how many of the permits required owners to modify their original plans.
Preister, 74, has lived in his home on Fifth Street in Northwest Washington for 36 years. A semiretired social worker, he too was bracing for a protracted struggle when he sought to add 12 front-facing solar panels to his roof. He had already installed 35 panels on less conspicuous parts of his house, but board members took a dim view of the more visible proposed additions.
“I applaud your greenness, and your desire to save the planet. And I realize that we are in crisis, politically as well as sustainably,” said board member Chris Landis, an architect. “But I just have this vision of a row of houses with solar panels on the front of them and it just — it upsets me, as somebody who’s supposed to protect the architectural fabric of a neighborhood.”
“Step back, and forget about the energy aspect of this,” said another board member, Outerbridge Horsey, also an architect. “Just think about the color and the texture. Would this board, in a historic district, think about allowing a glass roof on a historic structure? I mean, that’s basically what we’re talking about if you remove the sustainability issues.”
All but one member of the board voted against Preister’s solar panels. Their action drew widespread scorn after it was reported on the blog of Greater Greater Washington, a nonprofit urban policy and advocacy group. In December, Preister returned with a plan to wrap his front-facing solar panels in SolarSkin, a custom-designed sheath that would help the array blend in with his shingle roof. The coverings cost about $1,300, according to Preister’s contractor, Suhaib Shah of the installation firm Solenergi.
Landis, whose three-year term ended this month, said in an interview that the scrutiny of Preister’s project had been mischaracterized by environmentalists unfamiliar with the duties of historic preservation officials.
“You could say we’re old-fashioned, or we’re Luddites, or whatever you want to call us. But it’s a slippery slope, too. And once you start a precedent obviously everybody’s going to want it,” said Landis, noting that he has solar panels installed on the roof of his own business in Northeast Washington.
“Imagine taking a look at a row of houses with, let’s say, these little mansard roofs or hip roofs in front,” he said. “And you’re just going to see a sea of solar cells down that block. Aesthetically, it’s a huge change.”
‘Of what use is a fine house …’
Such controversies are flaring up around the country, said Sistine Solar chief executive Senthil Balasubramanian, whose company designed the solar-panel wrappers Preister incorporated.
Aided by federal tax incentives, local energy credits and new financing options offered by installers, solar panels that once cost tens of thousands of dollars to install can now be had with little to no upfront cost.
“As solar becomes increasingly common, the aesthetic objection starts to happen more frequently,” Balasubramanian said. SolarSkin cuts the efficiency of photovoltaic cells by about 10 percent and can increase the price by roughly 8 percent, he said, but those trade-offs are worth it for customers who otherwise wouldn’t be getting permits at all.
In Hot Springs, S.D., Lucia Stanslaw used SolarSkin to mask the panels she placed on the awning of her boutique for fair-trade goods in a tourist-heavy historic district. Stanslaw said she understood the value of preserving historic buildings, some of which had been razed in her home city of Guadalajara, Mexico.
But in the United States, she said, historic preservation officials can become fixated on details that obscure a bigger picture.
“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.”
In Ann Arbor, Mich., Matt and Kelly Grocoff faced skepticism in 2010 when they sought the blessing of the city’s Historic District Commission for solar panels atop their 1901 Folk Victorian house. Matt Grocoff said that he overcame commissioners’ suspicions in part by making the case for a broader view of preservation.
“I quoted Henry David Thoreau: ‘Of what use is a fine house if you haven’t got a tolerable planet to put it on?’ ” Grocoff said. “With the urgency of the climate crisis, historic districts are really going to have to rethink what they allow. There is a way to preserve heritage, preserve these historic buildings, and still make them workable for the modern world.”
States and cities vary widely in their approach to solar panels on historic buildings. California for decades has barred local officials from placing excessive restrictions on homeowners’ solar installations. Connecticut is trying to give solar adopters greater flexibility by allowing them to offset violations of historic preservation standards with other actions, such as preservation easements, said Todd Levine, a historian in the state’s historic preservation office.
Levine noted that solar panels, unlike some other modifications to historic buildings, are easily reversible — and will inevitably be replaced as technology improves.
“At the end of the day, 20 years from now, they’re all going to be removed,” he said. “We wanted to have a system where we didn’t slow down the applicants.”
As he waits to install his 12 new solar panels facing the street this spring, Preister said he hopes that D.C. officials will take seriously the need to streamline their own review process — and to actively encourage residents of historic districts to adopt solar. Without the contributions of those home and business owners, he said, the city’s goal of an all-green energy supply just 12 years from now is likely to prove elusive.
“If they don’t get these people on board,” Preister said, “they’re not going to make it.”
Fenit Nirappil contributed to this report.