Adding a rooftop solar system to an existing historic property is difficult, but it can be done. After all, President Carter had solar panels installed on the White House during his time in office (President Reagan had them ripped out as soon as he moved in!). The Vatican went solar in 2008.

There is nothing that says solar panels cannot be added to an historic property, as long as the installation complies with all federal, state and local requirements. The National Alliance for Preservation Commissions (NAPC) and the U.S. Department of the Interior’s National Park Service (NPS) have each set up general guidelines for installing solar systems.

In Richmond, California, near San Francisco, a solar system has recently been installed on a rooftop in Atchison Village, a historic and cooperatively-managed housing community. Adam Lenz, an environmental planner for the City, says those NAPC and NPS guidelines were an important part of the process. “The guidance makes an important distinction that the solar installation will not impact the historical character of the house,” That project was accomplished in cooperation with the non-profit solar advocacy group GRID Alternatives.

The process took 6 months and involved a lot of  back-and-forth consultations between Lenz, the housing community’s board of directors, the city’s historical preservation committee, city planners and GRID Alternatives. Anyone wishing to put up solar panels on an historic property should be prepared to engage in protracted discussions with all stakeholders.

In the end, it was agreed that a 1.1 kW system could be installed as a pilot program, provided it complied with NAPC guidelines which require that the panels should be installed flat and not alter the slope of the roof, the installation of the panels should not replace or damage any historical materials, and that the solar panels can be removed if necessary. They also state that the visibility of a system should be limited.

Not all historic preservation organizations are open to solar systems, primarily because they may significantly alter the appearance of the property. Even after the first system in Atchison Village got approved and installed, city planner Lenz says he will check back with the residents on the process before moving forward with more installations. “We’d like to reengage the community there and provide a report out on what happened first,” he says.

Photo: National Trust For Historic Preservation