Greater Greater Washington

Preservation staff reject solar panels on Cleveland Park home

If you own a home in a historic district in DC, you can't install solar panels, unless nobody can see them from a street. That's the recommendation from historic preservation staff on a case the board will debate today.


Photo by ell brown on Flickr.

A homeowner on Newark Street in Cleveland Park wants to add solar panels to the roof. The house faces south, meaning that the only side invisible from the street would be the north side which gets far less sun.

The Cleveland Park Historical Society supports the panels. From their website:

CPHS's Architectural Review Committee supports the installation of solar panels on this property, not on the street-facing slope of the roof (which the applicants do not propose), but on more of the west face of the roof than was originally proposed, in order to regularize the array of panels. The ARC is interested in encouraging the use of alternative energy sources in the historic district. It received very strong statements of support from neighbors adjoining the property.

However, the staff report says that according to current preservation guidelines, solar panels are okay but only if nobody can see them from a street. If they can, no solar panels.

In fairness to historic preservation staff, they seem to be trying to follow their written guidelines. Preservation decisions are already so subjective, and the more preservationists can make them predictable, the better.

However, these guidelines are still very vague and leave lots of room for staff or the board to come out differently on similar cases. For example, staff recommended against letting the building replacing the Christian Science church at 16th and I have a penthouse level with occupiable space, and most board members agreed. But, ANC members pointed out, in 2007 staff supported a penthouse roof terrace for the Hay-Adams hotel, right on Lafayette Park.

Listen to any meeting of the Historic Preservation Review Board, the appointed body that makes the ultimate decisions, and few members on either side of the issue talk about how a case fits with similar cases elsewhere or how a project lines up against guidelines; instead, you hear a lot of very personal opinions about whether members "like it" or not.

A bigger problem is the one Matt Yglesias pointed out: The preservation process narrowly excludes every single factor except for historic "compatibility." In most public decisions, officials weigh a variety of factors against one another. Here, the board must ignore the value of environmental sustainability, the economic impact, and even the owner's hardship or religious freedom.

At the previous HPRB meeting, where the board landmarked the 1960s urban-renewal Tiber Island project in Southwest, preservation chief David Maloney noted that there was "not yet public support" for a wider historic district in the neighborhood. As long as the preservation process holds that "compatibility" is the sole factor and overly restrictive guidelines define it so narrowly, it's unlikely there will ever be public support for another historic district.

Anyone who'd rather see no more preservation at all would probably appreciate this conclusion. So, perhaps, do those who only care about blocking development in a select few already-designed neighborhoods and who care little about the rest. Everyone else, however, ought to hope our preservation process can reach a better balance in keeping with the broader priorities and needs of the city.

Update: The Montgomery County Historic Preservation Office followed up with a tweet about how in their county, they're okay with visible solar panels when done tastefully and when it's the only option. A store in Glen Echo Heights got permission to add the panels. DC would do well to follow suit.

Update 2: The board voted 4-3 today to reject the solar panels. In an initial vote, members Andrew Aurbach, Maria Casarella, Graham Davidson and chair Catherine Buell voted to allow the solar panels, while Rauzia Ally, Nancy Metzger, Gretchen Pfaehler and Joseph Taylor voted no. Buell then abstained in a subsequent vote to allow the board to pass a motion.

David Alpert is the founder and editor-in-chief of Greater Greater Washington. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He now lives with his wife and daughter in Dupont Circle. 

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The entire historic preservation review process is rife with the potential for abuse. It's totally subjective, relying upon the sensibilities of the current membership. It's completely an insider game, and one with impenetrable politics. Hire the wrong advisers, and you are toast. Its decisions are difficult and expensive to have overruled.

While it may be necessary, it's also deeply flawed, with a high percentage of cases being resolved on grounds that are a mystery to the average person.

by Crickey7 on May 31, 2012 10:08 am • linkreport

I bet coal chutes are ok, though. :facepalm:

by Ward 1 Guy on May 31, 2012 10:14 am • linkreport

in 2007 staff supported a penthouse roof terrace for the Hay-Adams hotel, right on Lafayette Park.

Without knowing the specifics of the Hay-Adams, I do know the HPO has in recent years become more rigorous in their reviews of proposals. Enough projects have passed where the drawings were deceptive, with fudged dimensions showing favorable site-lines. Before they would take it at face value because of either limited resources or inexperience and thus developers would regard historic preservation as pushovers. Another thing to note is that through experience they can see their decisions "go live" and learn from that. There is no unified code to refer to, unlike with building codes.

Crickey7 The entire historic preservation review process is rife with the potential for abuse.

While I agree preservation enters the realm of subjective, DC does a much better and more concise job compared to other jurisdictions I've experience. People want firm rules, but that sets up another type of abuse, where developers look for loopholes and play them.

by Bob See on May 31, 2012 10:53 am • linkreport

Do the solar panel guidelines have a huge impact in DC historic districts? It seems like many (though not all) of the historic districts tend to have predominantly rowhouses with flat roofs, which would keep the panels from being visible from the street, as long as they're set back by a few feet.

by Jacques on May 31, 2012 11:02 am • linkreport

We've seen situations where members have particular bugaboos that they fixate on and make a fetish of. We may do a better job than most, but there is always room for improvement. As we see here.

by Crickey7 on May 31, 2012 11:04 am • linkreport

Incredibly similar to a very recent issue in the historic St. Louis neighborhood of Soulard.
St. Louis Battle Over Solar Panels Pits Preservation Against Environmentalism

by Herbie on May 31, 2012 11:09 am • linkreport

The issue also has impacts on public property and investment that are of concern. For example, in the 17th St Streetscape (and other streetscape projects), the project was unable to use anything other than the historic globe lights that are very light polluting. Even though new lights and enclosures were being used for the project, the project was prevented from using a design that could have provided an additional improvement because of extreme historical concern. If you walk down the 1700 block of Church St NW, you can see many of the lights have been marked up in order to prevent light in shining sideways into people's homes. Yet the preservation societies prevent such improvement when public funds are invested. Historic preservation goes too far.

by Public Problem Too on May 31, 2012 11:29 am • linkreport

I think solar panels look really cool. They should be allowed!

by Scoot on May 31, 2012 11:30 am • linkreport

It is absolutely wasteful to not allow solar energy to be captured. If historic rules prevent this, the rules need to be changed. As far as I'm concerned, general building code should require solar energy capturing from now on as much as possible.

Meanwhile, Germany is providing for half of its energy with solar power.

http://www.euronews.com/2012/05/27/germany-breaks-solar-energy-record/

If that is possible, why are we still destroying mountains and fracking for burning coal and natural gas?

by Jasper on May 31, 2012 11:32 am • linkreport

Something in me has to want the HPO and other preservation groups to take in environmental costs whether by statute or practice.

I live in a historically designated area in my apt. complex(in Arlington) . There is not a lot of bicyle parking and the one rack nearest me is always way beyond capacity. I asked the management about what it would take to install more bike racks and they said it has to go through a preservation review process, while they may just be stalling its still silly to think that bike racks aren't compatible with an area that was originally built in the 1930's. They had bicylces then. It's not as if the street signs on the road are from the 30's ton contribute.

All that to say, that the preservation offices should in some respect accept that things should be changed for environmental or a plethora of other reasons and ultimately it doesn't detract.

by X on May 31, 2012 11:36 am • linkreport

Heaven forbid this unelected board allows a property owner to make new "history."

I'm glad they weren't around during the Civil War, they never would have allowed the installation of telegraph lines to connect the nation's capital to the union forces in the field.

by dcrepublican on May 31, 2012 11:36 am • linkreport

@Jasper

just a note that Germany got half of its power at midday on two days this past week from solar. We are approaching the summer solstice, and they had nice sunny weather. This is far from half of Germany's energy. Actually they are getting 4% of their power from solar. (20% from renewables...but that includes biomass, I think).

Solar is important, but intermittancy is a real challenge.

by DavidDuck on May 31, 2012 11:40 am • linkreport

Whodathunk that giving planners this power over property rights would lead to problems?

by Ironchef on May 31, 2012 12:15 pm • linkreport

@Ironchef: You realize that these aren't planners we're talking about here, right?

by Gray on May 31, 2012 12:22 pm • linkreport

This is ridiculous.

by Sam on May 31, 2012 12:26 pm • linkreport

Jasper: It is absolutely wasteful to not allow solar energy to be captured. If historic rules prevent this, the rules need to be changed.

I tend to agree. An argument can be made that solar panels don't affect the structure or integrity of the original building any more than an addition would (in fact an addition affects it way more). The panels could be installed and removed pretty trivially, changing nothing about the building itself.

by Bob See on May 31, 2012 12:27 pm • linkreport

Sad to see the HPRB shoot itself in the foot. I'm all for preservation, but when they do this kind of thing, I cringe. Like when they force people to install million dollar windows. Someone needs to develope a preservation lite category that will save the building while allowing for these superficial changes that can be easily reversed.

by Thayer-D on May 31, 2012 12:50 pm • linkreport

Well, again, design review is more pain than it is worth, but this is totally within the purview and intent of the historic district.

Maybe the broader question is: where are the solar panels with compatible design? If these panels had been available in 1900, they would have elaborate brackets and finishes that would relate them to the details on the walls. Look at what architects in that period did when the lightbulb was an insanely cool gizmo.

Where are the traditionalist architects who addressing and celebrating new technology? Surely there are some, but all we hear about is how we have to go back to building exactly like we did in the 1900s and abandon all philosophical and technological development since then. Anyone I should look at?

by Neil Flanagan on May 31, 2012 12:53 pm • linkreport

Geothermal systems are more sustainable, better value, and longer lasting than solar panels. And they're not visible. If we're going to sacrifice everything on the altar of sustainability we should do geothermal and get the best.

by crin on May 31, 2012 12:57 pm • linkreport

Jasper - note this from teh article too:

"a 2012 Environment Ministry report showed that German customers pay an extra four billion euros per year on top of their electricity bills to support solar power."

by ah on May 31, 2012 1:09 pm • linkreport

Sad to see the HPRB shoot itself in the foot. I'm all for preservation, but when they do this kind of thing, I cringe. Like when they force people to install million dollar windows. Someone needs to develope a preservation lite category that will save the building while allowing for these superficial changes that can be easily reversed.

This makes sense. Surely there are ways to preserve most of the look and feel without some of the outrageously strict rules, such as the $1m windows that aren't energy efficient anyway.

Likewise, there are solar roof tiles that, while not identical to a typical roof, at least are plausibly similar. Did the owners or HRPB consider those?

by ah on May 31, 2012 1:13 pm • linkreport

What's stopping them from putting the solar panels on the roof, anyway? We all know that, for the most part, nothing in DC is a real crime unless you actually kill anyone.

If one guy can go for decades stealing stuff out of people's cars with no real consequence, I fail to see why there should be a problem just putting up some solar panels, HPRB or not.

I am kidding, but only somewhat kidding.

by JustMe on May 31, 2012 1:15 pm • linkreport

I totally support the Preservation staff's efforts to have the street that this house is on look as historically accurate to when the buildings were built is possible.

When will they be removing all the cars from the street for parking and traveling purposes? After all, they are just as ahistorical as solar panels.

by CityBeautiful21 on May 31, 2012 1:37 pm • linkreport

What about preserving the climate DC has historically enjoyed? Does that factor in at all?

by Miles Grant on May 31, 2012 1:46 pm • linkreport

@ DavidDuck:Germany got half of its power at midday on two days this past week from solar. We are approaching the summer solstice, and they had nice sunny weather.

Sure. Very true. What's also true is that Germany is entirely north of Maine. Northern Germany overlaps with southern Alaska.

I just see a massive contrast between Germany being the largest solar energy producer in the world, and the US, where mountain top removal and pumping undisclosed fluids in the ground are subsidized and growing ways of providing for power.

You are right by the way that Germany also gets a lot of its power from other renewable sources such as wind and biomass. As a Dutchman, I am embarrassed that the Germans are now the windmill country. That's supposed to by our thing.

There is no excuse for not plucking this low-hanging fruit.

by Jasper on May 31, 2012 2:06 pm • linkreport

@ Jasper; oh, I don't know.

http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2012-05-29/spain-ejects-clean-power-industry-with-europe-precedent-energy.html

It is impressive what they have done -- but giant wasteful projects like this call out for austerity. 444 euros for a feed in tarif?

by charlie on May 31, 2012 2:12 pm • linkreport

@Pulbic Problem Too "The issue also has impacts on public property and investment that are of concern. For example, in the 17th St Streetscape (and other streetscape projects), the project was unable to use anything other than the historic globe lights that are very light polluting."

I think you have your facts wrong on this one. It's not the shape of the globes which cause the light to disperse everywhere, it's the lighting system being used and the dispersion is by design. I was on the ANC in my then neighborhood when PEPCO switch from the old lighting system to the new (which 17th Street just recently got) and it was explained to us that this kind of lighting is considered safer (and more economical) because rather than concentraing light just 'down' it disperses everywhere giving a better approximation of daylight. I.e., in addition to the being better able to see things (and possible threats) directly on the sidewalk or road, you can see things (and possible threats) up to the building facades AND there are no shawdows (which helps create a safer feeling).

by Lance on May 31, 2012 2:24 pm • linkreport

@Lance

Thank you for your comments. That makes sense to not be entirely down. However the light at and above the "horizon" of the lights causes light pollution into the sky and annoyances when shining into someone's 2nd and 3rd story windows where the street lights should not shine. Were there any discussions on how to mitigate that impact?

by Public Problem Too on May 31, 2012 2:31 pm • linkreport

1. This is an issue with pitched roofs only, not flat roofs.

2. The city needs to think about this issue more rigorously than we are at present, and address it systematically.

3. For example, as ah alludes to, there are other solar energy products that look more like slate/roofing shingles. Dow Chemical makes them, among others.

- http://www.dowsolar.com/?utm_source=google&utm_medium=cpc&utm_content=power+source

Such panels might even be better because my understanding is that the way most solar setups are done, if there is a problem with the energy generation of one panel (shade etc.), all of the panels go out of service and don't generate electricity.

4. I know that the HPRB has an adhoc sustainability committee, this would be an issue for them to look at.

5. PreserveNJ has been addressing this issue (they are an advocacy group, not a regulatory body) and have a great blog entry on the topic:

- http://preservationnj.wordpress.com/2010/04/14/solar-panels-other-renewables-in-historic-districts/

by Richard Layman on May 31, 2012 2:32 pm • linkreport

@Public Problem Too "However the light at and above the "horizon" of the lights causes light pollution into the sky and annoyances when shining into someone's 2nd and 3rd story windows where the street lights should not shine. Were there any discussions on how to mitigate that impact?

Yes, window blinds ... inside the house. Incidentally, I've got one of these globe bulbs right outside my 2nd floor master bedroom bay and the blinds effectively keep all the light out. I opted for Next Day Blinds but I'm sure there are lots of other brands that will provide 'room darkening' blinds. Personally, I'd rather have to get the blinds than the house not be as lit up as it is with the PEPCO light right outside. I always feel safe walking up through my (small) front yard and up the stairs ... even late at night. Additionally, lots of folks pay good money to illuminate their front facades. PEPCO/the District is paying to illuminate mine. :)

by Lance on May 31, 2012 2:40 pm • linkreport

@ charlie:It is impressive what they have done -- but giant wasteful projects like this call out for austerity. 444 euros for a feed in tarif?

It's a bit off-topic, but Spain is kind of a sad case, like Ireland. They did everything right, and used European money to fix their infrastructure. They needed that. Spain was a third world country 35 years ago. And now they get smacked down in a massive real estate bust. It is sad but unsurprising that they're now killing virtually all subsidies they were giving out. They can not do anything else with their massive unemployment.

It does not prove anything though. I am not a big fan of business subsidies. In the US, in stead of subsidizing Solyndra, it would be much more effective to kill all the subsidies and tax loop holes that the oil and gas industry get. States should also not give away fossil fuel permits, but demand a significant cut from all proceeds. Alaska's got that down well. That would level the playing field.

It is really true that renewable energy is pretty much competitive with "old school" energy. The problem is that "old school" energy already has a (largely government-provided or subsidized) infrastructure for delivering that energy, and a lot of acquired benefits from decades of lobbying. If those advantages were taken away, renewable energy would be pretty competitive.

Simple example. Electric cars exist. They run well. The problem is that there is no infrastructure to charge them, as opposed to thousands of gas stations. Charging a car is easier than pumping gas, because you can do it at home, at work and while shopping. The problem is that the plugs and meters do not exist (yet).

by Jasper on May 31, 2012 2:41 pm • linkreport

I'm with Lance on the lighting: There are streetlights outside my house, front and back, that throw off a fair amount of light. I had roman shades put in the bedroom to make it dark, and I like it really, really dark.

by David Alpert on May 31, 2012 2:44 pm • linkreport

@Jasper

Your comment is a logical approach for the horizontal light but a different opinion from mine, so fair enough. However, there is no way that I know of to put Next Day Blinds on the sky. The light that goes up (not toward a house, but above the nearby houses) lights the sky. That is not only wasteful but also it contributes to the city light pollution. With new lights, this should have been taken into consideration to avoid this unnecessary light.

by Public Problem Too on May 31, 2012 2:51 pm • linkreport

jasper,

There is no excuse for not plucking this low-hanging fruit.

It's not low-hanging fruit. It's very expensive way-up-high fruit. Germans pay three times as much per Kwh for electricity as Americans do. The German government is phasing out its massive solar subsidies because it can't afford them any more. And as others have pointed out, despite having the largest installed solar capacity per capita in the world, solar still provides only a small fraction of Germany's energy.

I think solar has enormous potential in the long term, especially in the sunbelt, with its combination of lots of sunshine and lots of low-density housing (i.e., lots of exposed rooftop space for solar panels). But it shouldn't be overhyped in the short term. There are still enormous practical and economic obstacles to large-scale deployment.

by Bertie on May 31, 2012 6:35 pm • linkreport

Jasper, electric cars and trucks would be a lot more competitive if gasoline was priced comparable to that in Europe. I approached a firm that makes electric trucks in the US and UK about a particular truck (like the Sprinter), and using it as part of our proposals to implement bike share in various places. They said it's just not economically feasible to produce that model in the US, because gas prices don't make the electric van competitive, unlike in the UK.

charging infrastructure is a tricky thing. The bike sharing system we sell can run street parking, electric vehicle charging, and bike sharing (+ other functions) from the same kiosk.

But our sense is that most people who buy electric vehicles aren't buying them to be anytime/anywhere vehicles, they are buying them for specific kinds of trips, and have electric charging options available to them within the bounded nature of their regular trips using electric vehicles. THat being said, apartment buildings and office buildings are particularly good places for the equipment. General street availability isn't as important I don't think.

by Richard Layman on May 31, 2012 8:14 pm • linkreport

Let's return the discussion to the matter of solar panels and historic preservation. I saw an interesting article in this week's Northwest Current about the property in question.

According to the article in The Current, Mr. Layman, the company who is installing the solar panels said that the homeowner's roof is too small for shingle-style panels to work efficiently. The article also says, Jacque, that the board has approved more than 200 applications for solar panels on homes in historic districts, and that many of these homes are row houses with flat roofs.

Nevertheless, I imagine that the original owners of the 1906 home would have installed solar panels if they had the technology then.

When I lived in Old Town College Park, I participated in the process to have that neighborhood designated as a historic district, so I have some experience in this area. I don't believe that the solar panels are a blemish on the home because its architectural features and styles are still preserved. Neither we nor the board should expect the property look exactly as it did in 1906, but we should expect to see most, if not all, of its original architectural elements.

by The Civic Center on May 31, 2012 11:39 pm • linkreport

re: wanting HPRB to include sustainability issues in their decisions, be careful what you wish for. Large rear additions, which are now routinely approved by HPRB in Cleveland Park, would have to be drastically reconsidered. Large additions that nearly double the size of a house increase the cooling and heating load of the house. "No additions" is the more sustainable option/policy. No more 6th bathroom or media rooms. Sustainability triumphs!

by crin on Jun 1, 2012 7:42 am • linkreport

@ Bertie:I think solar has enormous potential in the long term,

I've been hearing that for 20 years now. The long term is over.

especially in the sunbelt, with its combination of lots of sunshine

It is a fallacy that only the sunbelt has enough sun. You need photons, not heat. We have plenty of sun here. Again, Germany is entirely north of Maine. DC is as far south as Lisbon and Athens. Plenty of sun here.

and lots of low-density housing (i.e., lots of exposed rooftop space for solar panels).

Why do you need low-density housing? Any roof is good. Also, there is more than solar cells. There are also solar-boilers which capture heat. A buddy of mine in Holland has one on his roof. Saves him 75% of his gas bill.

But it shouldn't be overhyped in the short term. There are still enormous practical and economic obstacles to large-scale deployment.

Like what? Honestly, it's not very hard. There are just a few things that need to be done:

* Oil, coal and gas subsidies, handouts and tax loopholes need to be ended.
* Local opposition to solar power installations need to be removed (historic preservation panels, HOAs, local ordonances0
* Customers need to get the right to feed excess power back into the grid. I.e., when they're not using their home-generated power, their meter needs to run backwards.

Then, let customers pay for their own installation, and allow volunteer larger-scale projects through power companies to cut cost. If PEPCO finds 10,000 of its customers to buy and install solar power at the same time, that will be cheaper for them than all 10,000 buying individualy. Plus, maintenance will be cheaper because an area will have similar installations.

@ Richard Layman:Jasper, electric cars and trucks would be a lot more competitive if gasoline was priced comparable to that in Europe.

True. Gas is way too cheap here. But it's not like electric cars are all over Europe. They're just as scarce as here.

charging infrastructure is a tricky thing.

It really isn't. People up north are used to power plugs for their engine heaters. It's just a matter of building the outside plugs, and finding a way of charging people for it. The biggest obstacles I see here are garage owners that need to get used to becoming power salesmen, and local ordinances and opposition against the plug installations.

THat being said, apartment buildings and office buildings are particularly good places for the equipment.

Exactly! But you need to convince businesses that they need to become power salesmen.

General street availability isn't as important I don't think.

Why not power up parking meters? The power lines are there.

The plugs are really a last 10 feet problem. Who will build, maintain and pay?

by Jasper on Jun 1, 2012 9:48 am • linkreport

The problem is not the HPRB, but the law, which demands that all alterations in a historic district be "compatible" with that district. Cost is not a consideration, nor are societal benefits, such as renewable, nonpolluting energy, to be considered, not by the Board. It is limited to that simple judgment: is it compatible, or is it not? Yes or no?

In fact, the Mayor's Agent can consider other factors, and overrule the HPO and the HPRB, on grounds of "special merit". But it shouldn't be necessary to go to that level, and depend on the judgment of one lone DC bureaucrat. If he favors solar energy, then this homeowner may prevail. If he doesn't, then that's that, the homeowner is out of luck.

Does anybody even know who this "Mayor's Agent" is? What an absurd historic preservation system we have.

by Jack on Jun 1, 2012 12:54 pm • linkreport

@Jack

What is compatible? Clearly some on HPRB thought the proposal was compatible, while others agreed with staff that it wasn't. The problem, as you note, is the law, which leaves too much subjectivity and interpretation.

An alternative is that the Mayor, through the Sustainable DC effort, could simply direct the DC Office of Planning and HPO to create guidelines that will allow for homeowners to use solar panels in a way that maximizes production while minimizing impact on historic resources. If what the Architectural Review Committee of the CPHS reports is accurate, then these property owners ought to have been able to move forward with their proposal. It was very respectful of the historic house.

by William on Jun 1, 2012 1:47 pm • linkreport

Is part of the problem also that too many areas are considered historic? Obviously the monuments and a fair amount of government buildings should not be changed for being historic. However when you get into residential and other businesses, do we need as much historic designation. Imagine we're almost 90 years from now, does Cleveland Park still need to look like 1920? I'm wondering if the historic designation is rather a roundabout way from preventing others from making changes to a building that people subjectively think is ugly. What is the true purpose of the historic designation of buildings, especially that which is just housing in an area developed 100 years ago, that just happen to be old?

by Too Much Historic? on Jun 1, 2012 1:55 pm • linkreport

@ Too Much Historic?:Imagine we're almost 90 years from now, does Cleveland Park still need to look like 1920? I'm wondering if the historic designation is rather a roundabout way from preventing others from making changes to a building that people subjectively think is ugly.

+1

by Jasper on Jun 1, 2012 2:15 pm • linkreport

Here's another environmental side note:
http://www.eea.europa.eu/pressroom/data-and-maps/data/data-viewers/greenhouse-gases-viewer
(you may have to play with the charts a bit)

The EU as a whole has reduced its CO2 emissions with 14% compared to 1990, in an effort to comply with the Kyoto protocol. The US has since seen an increase of 15%.

Yes, you can make all kinds of side-notes on the numbers. But they're real. CO2 emissions can be reduced. Significantly.

by Jasper on Jun 1, 2012 3:40 pm • linkreport

I've been hearing that for 20 years now.

The economics of solar power have improved enormously over the past 20 years, and will almost certainly continue to improve in the future. I'm having trouble following your position. A couple of days ago you seemed to be an enthusiastic proponent of solar power, and now you seem to be very skeptical that it has good long-term potential. Which is it?

It is a fallacy that only the sunbelt has enough sun.

I didn't say "only the sunbelt has enough sun" (whatever "enough sun" is supposed to mean). Solar power is more competitive in the sunbelt because the sunbelt has lots of sun. The power output of photovoltaic cells is strongly dependent on light intensity.

Why do you need low-density housing?

You don't "need" low-density housing. Low-density housing is much more conducive to solar power because it has a higher ratio of exposed roof area to building size and occupancy.

Like what? Honestly, it's not very hard.

The cost of solar cells and mounting infrastructure, the cost of electrical conversion equipment, the cost of electrical distribution equipment, the intermittent nature of the energy source... If it wasn't hard, it would be much more common. Even now, when solar cells are cheaper than they have ever been, a typical residential installation takes many years to recover its capital costs even with massive government subsidies.

by Bertie on Jun 1, 2012 5:41 pm • linkreport

The EU as a whole has reduced its CO2 emissions with 14% compared to 1990

Thanks to a low rate of population growth and a number of one-time events -- such as the decommissioning of obsolete, dirty factories and power plants in East Germany following German reunification, and the massive switch from coal to gas in Britain -- that cannot be repeated.

by Bertie on Jun 1, 2012 5:51 pm • linkreport

at this point in time its not like available roof area is a major constraint on solar development. Maybe when household solar is close to universal, it will add a benefit to a SFH over multifamily (and of course to a one floor SFH over a 2 story Cape or 3 story mcmansion) but we are far from that yet. I live in FFX, and solar panels on houses are pretty rare here.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Jun 1, 2012 6:17 pm • linkreport

The point is that low-density development is much more conducive to solar than high-density development. Yes, you can still put solar panels on the roofs of high-rise buildings, but they'll only provide a very small share of building's power needs. In contrast, low-rise buildings like single-family homes and one- or two-story office buildings have a much larger rooftop area relative to the size of the building, so rooftop solar installations can provide a much larger share of the building's needs. This is another big advantage of low-density development.

by Bertie on Jun 1, 2012 7:29 pm • linkreport

@ Bertie:now you seem to be very skeptical that it has good long-term potential.

No. I am just tired of people saying that we should wait a just a little longer, because "in the long term" solar will be ok. Solar is ok now. No need to wait anymore.

The power output of photovoltaic cells is strongly dependent on light intensity.

Yes, and if there's enough sun in Germany, then there is enough sun in the entire US, except for Alaska because Germany is located mostly north of the US.

You don't "need" low-density housing.

Good. Glad we got that settled.

The cost of solar cells and mounting infrastructure

Sure. And deep drilling for oil in the Gulf of Mexico is cheap, right? Fracking is the spontaneous release of gas from the ground, not? Those oils sands in Canada just have clean barrels of oil hidden in them.

The only reason why solar is perceived to be more expensive, is because the competition happens outside the normal vision of regular people, combined with the fact that the competition has pretty much bribed the government into giving it tax money.

Level the playing field, in people will use solar.

by Jasper on Jun 2, 2012 2:53 pm • linkreport

@ AWalker...:I live in FFX, and solar panels on houses are pretty rare here.

That's because most HOAs have rules against them. And few people are willing to fight their HOA. Too much trouble. Vindictive HOA board members can make your life very miserable.

Again, the playing field for solar is not level. It's not just a matter of slapping some cells on your rooftop. That's the whole problem.

by Jasper on Jun 2, 2012 2:56 pm • linkreport

Solar power is still expensive and the current infrastructure installed in Europe has required heavy subsidy. This was to boost take up and create businesses that supply the equipment. As take up has increased the subsidies have had to be cut as no one can afford the bill if everyone is doing it. But prices of solar are steadily reducing at some point they won't need subsidy. But it is a fact that the closer to the equator you live the more effective solar power is. Not only do they have less clouday days they don't have dark winters.

Solar will be extra effective in the sunbelt for several reasons. Not only will low density housing provide more roof space for the actual panels, the power supplied will be in the day. Areas that require heavy air conditioning will appreciate cheap power at the hottest part of the day.

Electric exist at the moment but they are not particularly good. Read the horrific stories of people who have 'bricked' their Tessla cars. Or the poor shmos who had their nissan leafs die after only half of the supposed milage has been done, or the fiery fiery death of people in an electric taxi in China involved in a shunt. The main problem with electric is the batteries are not there yet. They are heavy, don't hold enough mileage, very expensive. Not only do they not have enough charging points they take an absolute age to recharge. Electric only works if you have your parking spot or garage, which might work in suburban US but in older suburbs and cites with extensive street parking I'd love to see how people are supposed to run cables to recharging points. There needs to be electric filling stations, where high voltage transfers can take place and a battery be recharged in less than 5 minutes.

The better choice may be biofuels mixed with direct gas/electric hybrids. we will probably have better luck creating new genetic hybrid plants with high fuel outputs than getting new battery technologies.

by Rational Plan on Jun 3, 2012 11:30 am • linkreport

I've used photovoltaics for more than two decades (I have a kilowatt of solar panels). I also have a simple solar hot water system, a small greenhouse for plant starts in the winter and spring, and a clothesline (a great use of solar energy).

The claim that solar can substitute for the burning of coal and natural gas for electricity is appealing but wrong. The reason we all use fossil fuels is they are much more energy dense than living on our current solar budget. As we pass the peak of extraction - Peak Everything - we will use lower and lower rates of coal, oil, and natural gas because we cannot burn fuel that does not exist. This is at the root of the unfolding economic crisis - corruption of the Demicans and Republicrats is only part of the problem, not the root cause. We've passed the limits to growth on a finite planet, not that most people care about such details.

Electricity is also only a part of the "energy" we use. Sorry to disappoint but it's extremely unlikely that electric cars will be more than a tiny niche market. Ten thousand dollars of high tech battery is a complex way to get around a few liters of liquid fuels. Plus, most people cannot be bothered to use rechargeable batteries for flashlights, the idea that Americans who have zero energy literacy will magically develop the discipline to use rechargeable cars (assuming building 100 million of them was physically possible) is fantasy worthy of a Disney film.

The future is about relocalization, reduction of consumption, tearing up lawns and parking lots to grow food. Solar isn't going to run long distance delivery of food across time zones. Sorry.

by Mark Robinowitz on Jun 4, 2012 2:04 am • linkreport

we will use lower and lower rates of coal, oil, and natural gas because we cannot burn fuel that does not exist.

http://www.zimbio.com/Beauty/articles/c-tFamAPTG8/Best+Anti+Aging+Products+Review+Help+Look

by Talin habym on Jun 4, 2012 2:47 am • linkreport

Owning a historical house requires compromises, and there are situations in which energy conservation must give way to aesthetics.

Due to the party walls, row rouses are inherently more energy efficient than detached homes. Regarding solar panels, a homeowner will get far better bang for his/her buck with better insulation, by installing a green roof, buying a new boiler and water heater, or fixing the leaky doors and windows. These improvements are both more cost-effective and maintain the historical appearance.

The proposed solar panels district detracts from the original roof lines in the tightly packed row houses of the historical districts; they just are similar to 3rd-floor pop-ups that are universally despised. Since they only provide a insignificant amount of power, their use amounts to eco-vanity. I think the HRP is right to restrict the installation panels to situations where they cannot be viewed from the street.

by goldfish on Jun 4, 2012 9:07 am • linkreport

It's not ecovanity to heat water with solar thermal panels or to make electricity with photovoltaics. The real vanity is thinking that architecture is more important than knowing where your energy comes from.

I hope future generations will have the luxury to contemplate why we chose collapse instead of summoning the courage to admit there are limits to growth on a finite planet.

by Mark Robinowitz on Jun 4, 2012 11:24 pm • linkreport

@Mark Robinowitz: photovoltaics produce about 9 W/sq ft, for a maximum of 25% of the day. A full rooftop will make about 1500 W, about what a hairdryer uses. Run the numbers.

by goldfish on Jun 5, 2012 6:27 am • linkreport

That is a good reason not to use hair dryers - a great waste of energy.

A solar powered society would have a much smaller, steady state economy.

Smart Growth is an illusion and physically impossible.

Relocalizing food production is probably the most important energy policy.

Now that we're past Peak Oil, near or at Peak Coal and the illusion of "100 years" of natural gas is quickly fading it's important to recognize that it's not possible to use ever increasing amounts of energy.

The Earth is abundant and finite -- it's not getting any bigger and any system that assumes endless growth is possible will end up like all cancers do -- by killing the host.

by Mark Robinowitz on Jun 5, 2012 11:38 pm • linkreport

@Mark Robinowitz: That is a good reason not to use hair dryers - a great waste of energy. A solar powered society would have a much smaller, steady state economy.

The world you envision is a Malthusian distopia that has no regard for the most important resource of all, human labor and ingenuity. I want no part of this.

by goldfish on Jun 6, 2012 8:28 am • linkreport

the real dystopia is caused by those who want to pretend that there are no ecological limits that apply to us.

Human ingenuity is almost limitless, although stupidity is almost limitless, too (quoting Einstein).

Ingenuity also does not create resources out of thin air. Digital money can be created from nothing, but soil, fresh water, trees, food and the nonrenewables (fossil fuels, minerals, etc) require a lot of effort. Sorry that there's no free lunch.

I hope future generations have the luxury to contemplate why our time ignored the warnings about limits to exponential growth on a round, finite planet.

by Mark Robinowitz on Jun 6, 2012 6:17 pm • linkreport

An extra comment about Malthus: he was partly wrong and partly right. He didn't foresee the rise of fossil fuels in temporarily boosting the ability of industrial civilization to grow and grow. Coal and oil and other materials allowed us to zoom from a billion people to seven billion today. But we can no longer increase the rate of extracting stuff from the Earth -- oil can't be extracted any faster, nor can coal, natural gas, uranium, fresh water, fish, trees, food, etc.

Steady state instead of more "growth" (ie. boom and bust) seems the only way toward sincere sustainability. The claim of "sustainable growth" is an oxymoron now that we're past the limits to growth. It is sustain-a-bull.

by Mark Robinowitz on Jun 6, 2012 6:23 pm • linkreport

@Mark Robinowitz -- your sanctimonious lecture would have more bite if you were not typing away on a computer connected to the internet, which was made possible by coal-powered electricity, that fueled the industrial revolution, that spawned the current information revolution, that you are taking advantage of to create your post. Malthus was wrong, and continues to be wrong; I am sure he would be more relieved than everybody else.

by goldfish on Jun 7, 2012 9:00 am • linkreport

Yes, I do use a solar and coal powered computer. The solar panels are directly connected but they're only part of my power supply and it took fossil fuels to make and move and install them.

There is also a fossil fuel input into my garden and my canning jars (for food I grow).

I hope Malthus is wrong and I hope I am wrong and growth can continue forever on a finite planet without adverse consequences. It would be nice to see some actual evidence for that. Rhetoric is merely psychological evidence, not proof that ecological principles somehow do not apply to our society.

We're past Peaked Oil but Peak Denial is probably far in the future.

It was a very educational experience in the 1990s to do a large share of the technical work deconstructing the Intercounty Connector superhighway, and even more educational to watch how the environmental groups did not hold firm to stop the ICC. The interstate highways will be one of our Angkor Wat type ruins for future generations.

by Mark Robinowitz on Jun 7, 2012 11:12 am • linkreport

@Mark Robinowitz: Yes, I do use a solar and coal powered computer. The solar panels are directly connected but they're only part of my power supply and it took fossil fuels to make and move and install them.

This would be convincing if your message could be transmitted to the rest of us with only renewable energy. But your bullhorn is enabled by conventional power: all those servers that transmit your posts, and the computers owned by the people viewing your posts, are all plugged into coal power.

Moreover, the development of semiconductors and thus computers was done by people working air-conditioned laboratories using equipment that was also developed by people working in air-conditioned laboratories, and so on back many generations. The people working in these labs would normally be working on farms or other subsistence labor, but for the labor efficiencies provided by cheap energy. Their technical training at the high school, university, and post-graduate levels was similarly enabled by cheap energy. Reading the messages on this (or any other) blog is possible only through an economy that was depends on cheap power. You are a beneficiary of all this -- otherwise you would probably be working the land as a serf.

I hope Malthus is wrong and I hope I am wrong...

You need only look at the number of patents issued. It is increasing faster than the population.

and growth can continue forever on a finite planet without adverse consequences

That was never claimed -- adverse consequences are inevitable; the question is, can they be overcome? I say yes, and in support of this, consider the production of patents.

by goldfish on Jun 7, 2012 11:57 am • linkreport

You've actually made my point. Solar panels and the internet and computers made in China are not sustainable, even if we like to use them.

A century from now the symbol of solar power is likely to be a tree, not a solar electric panel.

Patents can be useful but they cannot change the laws of physics nor can they create physical resources that do not exist. Relocalize food and learn to live with much less energy. If we were smarter we would think about how to use the rest of the oil, coal, natural gas and minerals -- will be use some of them intelligently so future generations can benefit from our learning and profligate waste? Or will they have a totally trashed biosphere without much of a positive legacy? It's a fascinating time to be alive.

Unfortunately, most Middle Class North Americans are averse to getting their hands in the dirt to grow some of their own food. This is shifting a little but we have a long way to go.

It's mitigation time, not prevention of the problem. If our society had listened to the warnings a half century ago -- M. King Hubbert, Rachel Carson, The Limits to Growth Study, JFK's effort to shut down the Cold War and arms race, even Carter's effort to address energy -- we would be in a better position today.

I hope we reach Peak Denial soon.

"I can testify from my own experience ... that a four-hour work period, or a little less in the case of writing, produces the best results; and the alternation of intellectual activity with other forms of work, like gardening, wood-chopping, food-garnering, carpentry, or machine-tinkering, animates and raises to a higher pitch every other part of the day."
-- Lewis Mumford, "The Myth of the Machine: The Pentagon of Power," (1964), p. 406

by Mark Robinowitz on Jun 8, 2012 12:49 am • linkreport

@Mark Robinowitz: The energy resources that people are extracting today were unimaginable a few years ago. For example, only the dreamers considered wind farms on the astounding scale that now dominates Indiana. It does take much mental energy to suggest that the future will hold similar marvels.

Went to a talk today about ocean wave energy: this is close to commercialization. There are immense volumes of methane clathrate offshore, comparable to all the oil energy has been produced in over the past 100 years. These are completely untapped resources; mostly only ingenuity is needed to get the energy out. And of course, there is nuclear energy, which is currently limited by safety concerns -- if we wanted to, this could be expanded by many orders of magnitude.

BTW, in contrary to your pessimism, Rachel Carson's warnings have indeed been heeded, as laws have been passed to reverse the environmental damage from industrialization.

The Malthus theory has has been refuted over and over -- people have a very successful track record at overcoming technical obstacles. But your Malthusian nightmare seems to be immune to both technical argument (e.g., the number of patents) and history (Malthus suggested the world human carrying capacity of around a billion). I can only conclude that your attachment to this theory is based on nihilistic belief over anything else. I am betting on human toughness, which also has the advantage of being much less of a downer.

by goldfish on Jun 8, 2012 2:28 am • linkreport

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