D.C. wants 100% clean energy. Why is it rejecting solar?

Source: By Maya Earls, E&E News reporter • Posted: Monday, October 28, 2019

It began with a knock on the door.

In the years since his first meeting with solar panel recruiters, Steven Preister has installed more than 30 panels around his home in Washington, D.C. The 74-year-old’s latest push to add more has put him at the center of a dispute over aesthetics and what’s good for the planet.

Preister, a Takoma resident whose century-old home is in a historic district, said he had always thought about installing solar panels but wasn’t sure how. Then seven years ago, representatives from the Utah-based company Vivint Solar Inc. knocked on his door and told him his roof would be ideal for supporting solar panels.

Preister said that his concerns about climate change were the main reason he said yes.

“We don’t have a lot of time,” he said. “And I think about my adult children and the children they will have, and I don’t think it’s going to be a lot of fun.”

He started by installing solar panels in the back of his home. Then he started looking at the front. For this process, he would need to go through the district’s Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB), which is responsible for designating historic districts and reviewing construction projects.

“I knew there were some problems with the Historic Preservation Review Board, but I felt I could make a case,” Preister said.

He brought the proposal to his Advisory Neighborhood Commission last year; it split on approval 3-3. Despite the ANC’s hesitance, Preister said his neighbors gave their unanimous support, and several said they were interested in doing the same thing.

But he hit a snag with the HPRB, which denied his request in September 2018, citing the front-facing panels’ visibility from the street. It did approve five panels on the roof of the front porch, four on the front dormer and two above the dormer.

But Preister wasn’t satisfied.

He went back to the ANC this year and gained unanimous support. He also changed the design of the front-facing panels so they would be less prominent. Despite his efforts, the HPRB again denied the proposal on Oct. 3.

Preister said that although many members of the board sympathized with his motivations, they said the proposal didn’t work in the historic district. That idea itself was concerning, Preister said, considering how many historic districts there are in D.C. and how many homes could potentially be denied solar panels.

A spokesman for the district’s Office of Planning said that under the HPRB’s authority, the Historic Preservation Office has approved permits for solar installations on more than 1,400 historic properties over the past decade. He said that the HPRB has approved 11 out of the 13 applications sent directly to it in the same period.

In Preister’s case, the spokesman said the board found that the additional panels on the front roof were “incompatible with the character of the house and neighborhood.” However, it did approve panels on a rooftop facing the street side just a few blocks away, saying visibility was limited based on the “siting of the house and the surrounding tree cover.”

Erin Palmer, who reviewed Preister’s proposal as an ANC commissioner, says the commission neither finds solar panels ugly nor believes that aesthetic is a principled way to decide the outcome of proposed projects.

“There shouldn’t be this blanket prohibition on prominently visible solar panels,” she said. “That seems to be arbitrarily applied and doesn’t make sense to us.”

The fight over front-facing panels comes as D.C. has stepped up its renewable energy goals. In a unanimous vote last year, the D.C. Council approved a measure requiring 100% of its energy supply to come from renewable sources by 2032 (Energywire, Dec. 19, 2018).

Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) signed the bill into law in January, saying, “If we are going to make progress on addressing climate change and global warming in our country, it’s going to be cities and states leading the way.”

The HPRB is currently in the process of creating a “Sustainability Guide for Older and Historic Buildings.” The guide has a section on solar, which says installations must “take into account the building’s structural capacity and architectural character.” The board is scheduled to review a draft of the guide in December and allow for public comment. Preister said he plans to attend.

“If need be, I’ll try to be something of an activist and work with organizations that can help persuade the board to change their standards,” he said.

Palmer, the ANC commissioner, said overall there has been a lot of neighborhood support on the issue and general interest in doing whatever can be done to address climate change.

“There’s not one solution, this isn’t going to save the planet,” she said. “But it’s systemic change that’s important in light of the challenges we’re facing.”