Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Solar energy and the city: more issues

This house, on Van Buren Street NW, is not in a historic district, but is probably 80+ years old. There is no question that the way the building looks is impacted by the addition of solar panels to the front roof.

I have written before about the aesthetic impact of solar panels placed on the front elevation of households.

 For the most part, I am not in favor, as I discussed here, "Solar panels and historic districts: not a simple decision," although I have no problem with solar panels on the back elevation, which has limited negative visual impact on block ensembles.

-- Installing Solar Panels and Meeting the Secretary of the Interior's Standards, Technical Preservation Services, National Park Service

1. The Washington Business Journal reports ("Sun block: D.C. bill would require compensation when solar access obstructed") that DC Councilmember David Grosso has initiated legislation that would require abutting property owners to pay households with solar panels for the loss of access to sunlight if they build up in a manner that reduces sunlight to the solar array.

I don't see how this is an issue in historic districts, where for the most part, houses can't be built up, at least on the front, although this could be an issue with additions. And across the city, if new zoning rules ("DC proposes limits on pop-ups," Washington Post) are put into place concerning what are called "pop ups," that will address the issue anyway, without the need for special legislation.

Rowhouses in Frederick, MarylandWould this taller rowhouse in Frederick, Maryland make it hard for the abutting property to generate electricity from a solar energy array?

But, speaking as an objective analyst, with regard to CM Grosso's legislation one could similarly make the case that a household desiring unfettered access for solar should pay abutting households for the loss of their ability to build up.

There are takings issues here, although maybe a conflict of public policies and the promotion of solar energy could obviate a requirement to pay for the loss of the ability to expand a house.

2. Just last night I happened to have a conversation with an ANC6B commissioner, who asked me about a "solar issue" involving "historic preservation" that came up in the Capitol Hill Historic District, where she characterized the issue as "historic preservation being against solar."

While I might have too short term of a perspective on the utility of solar energy--it's not all that cost effective, without significant subsidies--she made good points about higher income households typifying the demographics of historic districts like Capitol Hill Historic District being "first movers" who foster the development and implementation of new and important technologies, and that historic preservation shouldn't be seen as a laggard in terms of environmental improvement.

But I said to her, my understanding is that the "problems" involving the aesthetic impact of solar panels are not in rowhouse districts, because placement of solar panels on the roof doesn't have much in the way of visual impact.

She said the house was either a corner house or an angled property, meaning that it is visible from two elevations, and while the front facing elevation had no visual impact, the side elevation did. And she averred that regardless of the visibility of the side elevation, are solar panels any different than mechanicals (like HVAC) installed on roofs elsewhere in historic districts, and occasionally visible (she used the redeveloped Friendship House as an example).

Even so, I don't see how a solar array would be visible from the side elevation if placed on a flat roof.

Anyway, it turns out that the house in question has a conservation easement placed with the L'Enfant Trust and it was the Trust, not the local DC historic preservation regulatory structure, which rejected the application. Conservation easement holders typically apply a stricter interpretation of the impact of changes than is typical of the normal regulatory process.

I cautioned her to be very clear about the process and who made what decision and to not "denigrate" the normal "local" historic preservation community/regulatory function for this decision.

3.  Over the weekend Washington Post national real estate columnist Kenneth Harney wrote ("Why leased solar panels may not be an asset when a house is sold") about difficulties selling houses encumbered with long term leases (up to 20 years) of solar power generation equipment ("SolarCity Joins Rivals in Lending Solar Panels to Clients," New York Times), and how many sellers end up buying out the lease in order for the sale to go through.

4.  The federal tax credit for solar installations is dropping from 30% to 10% as of December 2016 ("SolarCity, a Vocal Critic of the Utility Industry, Joins It," New York Times).  One of my "problems" with solar energy at the household scale is that I don't see how it makes financial sense without the various local and federal tax credits.

There are some firms and advocacy groups in the city which promote bulk purchases of solar equipment--which I think is a very good idea, as people getting solar energy systems can save 20% to 30% of the cost, which makes a big difference in the return on investment.

But without incentives, according to the table provided by DC SUN (DC Solar United Neighborhoods), an advocacy group, it can take 20 years or more for a household energy system to hit break even.  And that presumes no additional costs for maintenance, replacement of failed equipment, etc.  I suppose it makes a big difference if you have air conditioning (we don't).

5.  Who pays for the cost of maintaining the electricity infrastructure?  Lately, with some help from the American Legislative Exchange Council, an organization which actively lobbies state legislatures to pass pro-business/anti-consumer legislation ("ALEC calls for penalties on 'freerider' homeowners," Guardian), the utility industry has been making the point that households moving "off the grid" because of the implementation of solar energy or other alternative energy sources should have to pay a monthly fee towards the maintenance of the electrical power energy distribution infrastructure, which they still have access to on a back up basis.

I actually agree that this is a reasonable point, that the maintenance and improvement of the electricity distribution infrastructure is a public good which should be paid for by all users.

Similarly, I don't think that electric cars should not have to pay the equivalent of gasoline excise taxes, which pay towards the maintenance of the road system, which all cars use, regardless of their power source.

6.  Adding electric car charging infrastructure as an amenity for renters is becoming more widespread, according to National Multi-Housing News ("The Hottest New Amenity for Multifamily Communities: Car-Charging Stations").

While useful for attracting tenants, many companies see it is an additional revenue source.  Given that the cost for recharging is $2.50 to $4 according to Plug In America, charging $5 to $12 per charge as mentioned in the article, is a pretty good profit margin.

7.  And in the Reprogramming the City exhibit that I just saw in Richmond, one of the case studies is an example of how Telecom Austria is repurposing public phone booths in Vienna, as a way to provide electric car charging equipment (and to develop a new line of business).

According to the company, "it takes about 6.5 hours to recharge an electric car, 80 minutes to juice a scooter and only 20 minutes to charge an electric bicycle."

Image from the exhibition.

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At 3:09 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

not sure if you happened to notice it- but in Germany- solar panels are often made into actual roofing tiles and are not backed up by really incredibly ugly erector set frames that hold them in place- this to me presents a real dilemma for any part of the city- these things are insanely ugly and out of place. I do not mind photovoltaics on a roof as long as they are PART of the roof and fit into it as tiles. I once asked a guy I have known since childhood- a harvard graduate who now owns and runs his own solar company in the suburbs- if he could install tiles like they have in Germany " no that would be impossible" - well that sort of spells it out for me. I have no interest in this business unless our people who run these companies can adapt to special cases and individual needs such as aesthetic concerns- which in Europe seem to have been met head on with far better results and a ton less arrogance.

At 3:19 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

didn't see it in Germany. The past blog entry referenced in the first paragraph did mention those kinds of systems, which are available in the US, but I haven't seen them demonstrated.

At 3:28 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

At 8:29 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

If that legislation passes, it will have the kind of development- frustrating power that old-school NIMBY's and preservationists wished they had.

At 10:09 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

This is the classic externality issue. Both in terms of your neighbor blocking the light -- but also in terms of the panels uglyfying the block.

Creating a market in this is probably more useful than a ban. That said markets are hard to create!

Given the sun loads in DC I don't see how rooftop solar would work well.

At 11:00 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

Well, you raise a good point. A rowhouse is usually something like 15 feet wide by maybe 40-60 feet long, so that's 750 s.f. at the median. But you can't use all that space for solar panels. And the way the sun hits it doesn't always maximize capture. Probably flat roof rowhouses aren't the best housing type for solar power generation.

our house is "weird" in that its best facing for sunlight isn't just south, but also west. In the afternoon and into the evening we get an incredible amount of sunlight from the west.

It's why I wish there were a form of Hardie board solar panels, since the way to capture the sunlight would be on the side of the house.

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