The Historic Building Controversy: Solar Panels Vs. Preservation

Kaitlin LindrosJuly 19, 20198090

Historic Buildings and Solar Panels: the Controversy 

Historical buildings, almost by definition, do not have the latest technologies, and often leave a larger carbon footprint. The best way to bring them up to speed is to update them with current systems, like solar panels. 

The question is, how much updating can and should occur without compromising the building/landmark’s historic character?

Preservationists are concerned that solar panels will mar the appearance of older buildings and compromise their historic integrity. On the other hand, green initiatives and sustanability issues are growing in importance as climate change looms, and many states are pushing for adoption of renewable energies as much as possible. 

Property owners are expected both to preserve architectural landmarks and to increase renewable energy use, even though these two things may not so easily go hand-in-hand.

People can get very heated when it comes to preserving precious landmarks. If you need an example, recall how, in Charlottesville, Va. 2017, the removal of a Confederate statue spurred a protest rally that turned violent, with both sides of the debate getting out of control. While that debate may have been more politically and racially charged than a debate over the addition of solar panels to a landmark, the core question remains the same: 

Where is the line between preservation and progress? 

Before the argument gets too heated, let’s explore what rules and regulations are already in place for updating historic sites with solar technology

Historic district buildings

Why Preserve Historic Buildings in the First Place?

Aside from inherent historic value, once a building is registered in the National Register of Historic Places, it is eligible for certain tax credits and grants, which make historic status attractive.

If the historic property doesn’t follow specific rules, it could lose its historic status and financial incentives. That’s why it is important for owners to be careful if they decide to upgrade their historic structures and check with local regulators first, if any. 

Guidelines for Solar Systems in Historic Districts

While there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution to the problem of updating historic structures, there are guidelines in place in some local areas by various organizations nationwide. 

The National Alliance of Preservation Commissions (NAPC) has collected sample guidelines from various local chapters, in light of the increasing trend towards retrofitting older homes with energy-efficient solar systems. 

The guide states that the overall objective is to “preserve character-defining features and historic fabric while accommodating the need for solar access to the greatest extent possible.”

This must be done on a case-by-case basis, as characteristics of buildings will vary greatly. For example, a building with a flat roof will find it easier to install unobtrusive solar panels than a house with a slanted roof visible from the street. But there are some guidelines that apply to almost all options.

The gold standard for solar panel installations is the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation (pg. 76). The standards that apply are as follows:

Standard Two: 

The historic character of a property will be retained and preserved. The removal of distinctive materials or alteration of features, spaces and spatial relationships that characterize a property will be avoided. 

Standard Nine: 

New additions, exterior alterations, or related new construction will not destroy historic materials, features, and spatial relationships that characterize the property. The new work will be differentiated from the old and will be compatible with the historic materials, features, size, scale and proportion, and massing to protect the integrity of the property and its environment. 

In compliance with these standards, here are the do’s and don’t’s for solar upgrades on historic buildings:


- Use low-profile solar panels installed flat or in line with the existing slope of the roof.

- Place panels away from the roof edge and primary facade, or hidden behind architectural features.

- Make sure the installation is reversible.

- Match the color of mounting systems with current roof materials. 

- Make sure solar equipment is as unobtrusive as possible to reduce visibility from the public right-of-way. 

- Build any new constructions to mesh with the original design as much as possible to preserve historic context.


- Remove or replace historic roofing materials during installation.

- Alter configuration of the roof or other features in order to add solar systems.

- Make changes that cause irreversible changes to historic features or materials.

Of course, these measures are simply recommendations, and the guide cautions that these standards may not apply, or may change over time as technology changes. Thus, owners should limit retrofitting only to projects that achieve reasonable energy savings, at a reasonable cost, with the least intrusion or impact on the building’s character.

However, defining what a “reasonable” amount is, is where we often run into trouble.

How visible is too visible? What cost is too much cost?

Ultimately, the best option is to consult with the local entity responsible for approving the project, make sure your plan has a permit and falls in line with best practices, and ensure that it is reversible, in case something goes wrong. 

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) also offers a report, funded by the US Department of Energy (DOE) Solar America Communities program, as a resource to help increase adoption of solar in historic communities. 

The report highlights the same guidelines for updating historic buildings as the NAPC, but includes more detailed resources, analysis, and background. 

It outlines important considerations in solar projects, including:

- Performance of the PV solar system, dependent on characteristics like technology selected, shade, orientation, tilt angle, and more. 

- Economic feasibility of the project, dependent on factors like energy savings, cost of solar installation, maintenance, availability of incentives, discounts, and more.

The report also provides links to local guides and policies in place in various towns across the US, detailed processes for implementation of a solar project, and a table showing the public agencies responsible for historic preservation regulations, designations, and incentives for solar PV installations. Be sure to check out the full report for more details.

Ultimately, the goal is to expand potential solar resources to meet growing renewable energy needs in America while also preserving our heritage. 

By following existing guidelines and remaining flexible, it is possible for green solar energy and history to coexist in harmony

Common Conflicts

Not within local preservation guidelines

When historic property owners want to go solar, they often have to contend with the guidelines above, and sometimes their proposal may get rejected by local preservation boards if the installation doesn’t keep enough of the historic building’s character. 

“Historically,” communities have fought back against any visible solar panel installations, arguing it would harm the character of the district and defaulting to saying “no” to any new additions.  

But more often these days, especially with solar gaining in popularity, boards are willing to compromise, rather than rejecting a project outright, as today’s society places more value on sustainability and energy efficiency. 

Also, better technology is boosting approval, with today’s solar panels much more streamlined and aesthetically pleasing. Advances like solar roof tiles and shingles (also known as Building Integrated Photovoltaic Systems or BVIP) make it much easier for property owners to add solar without compromising on preservation.

For example, in Connecticut last year, about 1/10 of the 3,000 preservation cases addressed involved solar installations. Of the 30 cases, only 10 of them were deemed to be inappropriate, and even in those cases, the state office was able to work with parties to reach a compromise. 

So it is much more likely today that you will simply have to make some modifications to make it acceptable, rather than having to scrap your solar project entirely. 

Starting a project without prior approval

One big no-no if adding solar in a historic district or building is to start installing the solar system without getting approval or a permit first. 

Be sure to put your project before the appropriate local commission or board before proceeding with your project, to help you avoid any resulting problems. You don’t want to end up damaging your building, or have to take down your installation. 

Laws that encourage solar adoption may clash with preservation efforts

On the other side of things, sometimes preservationists may have a hard time keeping the character of a building in the face of new laws requiring renewable energy.

For example, California’s 1987 Solar Rights Act prohibits unreasonable restrictions on solar systems, which makes it difficult for preservationists to deny solar projects that might impact the appearance of historic buildings. 

However, usually local commissions are good about suggesting alternatives to rooftop solar panels - like buying shares on a solar farm, installing panels in the ground, or using solar shingles - that help homeowners increase energy efficiency, without losing their historic status. 

The Solution: Compromise

In the end, compromise is the best solution. 

Most people these days are in support of both preservation and renewable energy, so all it takes is a little discussion to find the right design for your building and a workable solution for all involved.

What do you think about solar panels on historic buildings? Leave your thoughts in the comments!

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