Historic preservation vs. clean energy

historic facade in Louisville

It's very green to renovate historic buildings. But must they be powered by coal and nukes? Photo: local louisville via Flickr.

After years of enduring energy-wasting apartments in various big cities — Chicago, Los Angeles, Washington, DC — I feel blessed to be able to inhabit my own house in a very cute, well preserved small city in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia.

Apartment living, with its drafty windows, walls and ceilings free of any shred of insulation, and shared utility bills split equally among tenants regardless of who turns down the heat and who doesn’t, galled the energy geek in me. But since I didn’t own the place, there wasn’t a damned thing I could do about it. And forget about asking the landlord to pony up to blow R-30 fiberglass in the attic. It was quite enough to get the toilet fixed by the weekend.

Home is where the hearth is — so who needs solar panels?

Now, living with a family in my own house-castle, the only limitation to delving into energy efficiency is our budget (and of course, the kids’ willingness to turn off the lights).

Except that our Edwardian townhouse also happens to be located in an official historic district. That’s good news for aesthetics and for property values. But it turns out that historic districts are bad news for clean energy.

Let me explain.

Since I work as a solar power developer for colleges and universities, we wanted to walk a bit of our own talk on a smaller scale at home. Home solar is becoming more affordable every month. And if there’s a company like Sun Edison or Sungevity serving the area, you can avoid most or all the upfront costs of installation by leasing the panels for an immediate savings over what you’d pay your electric utility anyway.

As I’ve argued before, solar power is the “teddy bear” of energy sources: It’s not only clean but its fuel (sunshine) is absolutely free and you can make your own energy, kicking your electric company to the curb.

So, what’s not to like about solar panels on your home’s roof?

Well, plenty, if you’re a historic preservationist and your idea of what your house should look like from the outside is frozen in the year the house was built. In our case, that would be around 1910-1920.

Now, there are exceptions of course for modern technology. Of course, power, phone and cable lines are acceptable. In some historic districts they even allow satellite dishes. But around the US, historic preservation authorities have been leery of or even antagonistic towards solar panels. Even Al Gore had trouble getting approval to put up PV on his 70-year-old house in Nashville.

In our town, we’ve been told that solar panels would only be allowed if 1) pedestrians can’t see them from the street or 2) we build a new structure just to hold the panels.

Sounds reasonable enough, right? Well, not really.

The cost of a purpose-built solar tower would make the project too expensive, even if we had the land to do it, which we don’t. And solar panels really need to face the sun to produce enough power to earn their keep. On our house that means on the southern face of our pitched roof, easily visible from the street below.

So I guess solar is out at our house. But boy, do we have a pretty facade. Our historically inoffensive house will probably hold its value nicely in case we can’t afford to pay our utility bills in the future and we get foreclosed. Unless the next buyer doesn’t want to pay high utility bills either.

In that case, our house could just sit there empty for a while, looking all ready to host a barbershop quartet or a suffragette tea. Maybe the historic preservation folks could use it as a museum to show schoolkids what empty houses looked like when Woodrow Wilson was president?

Don’t worry, go geothermal

Not to be stuck themselves in a pre-World War I mindset, our local preservationists have come up with a workaround: why not just have the City install an underground geothermal district heating system to serve a bunch of houses like mine as well as nearby businesses?

Forget that digging up the ground under a bunch of hundred-year-old buildings to put in pipes and a heat-exchanger sounds so complicated and expensive that it’s unlikely to fit in our already tight city budget for another couple decades.

The point is, you can’t SEE a geothermal system because it’s underground. And that’s why preservation folks, bless their hearts, love it.

"Old is the new green"

Our local historic preservation group used Earth Day as a chance to make some good points how green it is to save and renovate old buildings. But their attitude towards solar panels is not so green.

But until that happens, I guess the preservation people would just have us keep using power from the grid, courtesy of coal, natural gas and nuclear power. And I thought historic preservation was supposed to be friendly to the environment?

Well, verboten solar is just not good enough for me. I don’t see why the energy infrastructure of Kaiser Wilhelm’s era — chimneys and coal bins — is so much more charming than some tastefully installed solar panels on the roof?

And let me put the architecture history buffs at ease. I promise, letting me have a little solar would not turn out to be a gateway drug for anything-goes street-front tackiness. I won’t try to enclose my porch in plexiglass,  install a neon “Jesus Saves” sign or turn my front yard into a parking deck anytime soon.

Just look around the country. Solar panel people can be good neighbors, even when you’re trying to cultivate a Model T-era vibe. Communities best preserve their past by allowing their citizens to enjoy prosperity now and in the future, not by turning historic neighborhoods into open-air musuems.

— Erik Curren, Transition Voice

You might also enjoy


  1. Anne LaFleur says

    Here is my response based on what I am learning in my transition group and from my intuition and practical experience.
    1.The greenest building is the one that already exists.
    2. We need to refuse before we reduce, reuse, recycle.
    3. There are simple ways to reduce the energy consumption of a building, insulation is a primary example.
    Some questions that came up for me:
    What is the true cost of solar panels? Where do the metals and minerals come from to make them? Who mines those metals and minerals and lives near the mines? How long do solar panels last? How easy are they to fix? Who profits from building new “green” buildings? (Let me answer this one–developers) When corporations like General Electric are promoting themselves as “green and sustainable” how can we discern what those terms really mean? What happens to the materials from the old building when it is torn down? Who says we need to live in buildings that are heated or cooled to 70F? What about warming ourselves up instead of our surroundings–wool is a great personal insulator, for example.
    I am learning that we will need to live drastically simpler lives, reducing our consumption by 90-100%. Simply changing our energy sources and living the same way will not do it.

    • says

      You make many good points, Anne. As to how much pollution the manufacture of solar panels creates, of course there will be less from shipping if they’re made in the USA, as the best panels today are. Meantime, a study done in 2008 determined that, all things considered, solar panels produce 90% less pollution than fossil fuels: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/02/080225090826.htm.

      So after saving your historic building, making it as energy efficient as you can and putting on your wool sweater, you’re still going to need electricity from somewhere. If you prohibit solar panels then you’re just locking in coal and nukes. For my part, that’s not acceptable.

  2. says

    Solar and wind energy capturing devices as well as nuclear are not alternative energy sources. They are extensions of the fossil fuel supply system. There is an illusion of looking at the trees and not the forest in the “Renewable” energy world. Not seeing the systems, machineries, fossil fuel uses and environmental degradation that create the devices to capture the sun, wind and biofuels allows myopia and false claims of renewable, clean, green and sustainable.

    Energy Return on Energy Invested (ERoEI) is only a part of the equation. There is a massive infrastructure of mining, processing, manufacturing, fabricating, installation, transportation and the associated environmental assaults. Each of these processes and machines may only add a miniscule amount of energy to the final component of solar or wind devices yet the devices cannot arise without them. There would be no devices with out this infrastructure.

    • says

      Technically, John, you’re right that it takes fossil fuels to make solar panels and wind turbines. Maybe someday we can manufacture them and their materials/components using 100% renewable energy. Until that day, today’s green energy relies on yesterday’s brown energy to get started. And perhaps renewables won’t have the EROEI to run our current global trade economy much longer without going much more local. That could actually be a good thing for the climate, other species and even our own quality of life.

      But when it comes to energy, the perfect is the enemy of the good.

      If you want to be totally fossil-free, there’s only one way: to do without electricity altogether. I would certainly respect that decision by any individual or small group who wants to drop out of society!

      Meanwhile, the rest of the global economy will continue to require energy for the foreseeable future. And that energy can either come from the dirtiest sources or from ones that are cleaner. I think if we’re too picky about how renewable our renewables are, then we’ll just wind up burning coal and running nukes for longer. And that would be a disaster.

      We should not let misplaced scruples keep us from doing the right thing in the practical world. If the real choice is between solar and coal, then there’s only one responsible choice.

  3. Etienne Bayenet says

    Many people complain about energy efficiency of old houses. Here in Europe as well. I believe that this is a problem of inside temperature requirements. When these houses were built, nobody dreamt of having 70°F during the winter from the bottom to the top of the house. I’m pretty sure that if you would want like 65°F in the living room only, the house would be very energy efficient. The problem is to find a way to upgrade old houses to modern standard in a way than doesn’t destroy the efficiency that we would enjoy if energy really gets expensive. I guess this requires a good sense of physics to understand how heat moves around. If you read books like “Please Look After Mother (Kyung-Sook Shin)”, she remembers that during the cold nights, they were all sleeping in the only heated room of their house, but traditional Korean houses seems to be very good during the hot summers.

  4. Rennie says

    Very good points Etienne, sweaters during the cold months and light weight garb during the summer months went a long way.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *