Getting To Yes in a New England Historic District

By Will Kessler

If New England is to hoist itself up from reliance on fossil-based energy, we need to re-think some priorities and look at solar panels differently.  A solar developer working in an historic district or an older building is often confronted with a hurdle called “contextual appropriateness.”  Often, the process for approval by the HAHJ (Historical Authority Having Jurisdiction) is barely navigable.  A typical review of a project is likely to include scrutiny of roof layouts, roof-to-panel standoff distance and even the color of the PV cells.  The installer may be asked to make the array completely invisible from the history district.  It is not easy, finding solar panels that blend in with architecture of the Revolutionary War era.

So it was with slight trepidation that I represented my company before the Exeter Historic District Commission in spring of 2011, along with the client.  Richard Russman, founder of Russman Law Office, wanted to offset 100 percent of the office electric load with solar power.   We proposed a 4.8-kilowatt array using 20 240-watt Sunpower modules filling the main rooftop. That rooftop is highly visible from right in the middle of the District.  It  ovelooks the Exeter Post Office, further southward to the buildings of the Phillips Exeter Academy (established in 1781), and is two doors from the Exeter Congregational Church (built in 1798.)

And so it was more than surprising to watch the hearing open and then close, with the Commissioners delivering a unanimous vote of approval.  I remember one of them echoing a letter written in support of the project saying “The point is not to turn Exeter into an Old Sturbridge village, but to make sure we preserve a sense of history while moving forward.”

Depending on the annual electricity usage at Russman Law Office, the old building may actually be a net-generator of renewable electricity, running the electric loads amongst the brick facades and hand-hewn beams around it.  This should make the project especially appealing from an economic standpoint, since the local utility (Unitil) is required to provide the customer reimbursement for avoided electricity costs under New Hampshire’s net-generation statute, HB 1353.

And there is always another context beyond the immediate one.   As an installer of rooftop solar systems, I meet more and more people in historic areas looking to fix their long term costs, offset pollution from unsustainable energy sources, and looking hopefully towards local historic commissions for a progressive view.  James Bruni, another client who has solar thermal collectors on his property in the historic West End of Portland, Maine, states he was glad of the installation since the collectors reduce operating costs of the building, and allow greater focus on maintenance and preservation projects.   “The collectors do not detract from the aesthetic of the building,” Bruni said. “In fact reinforce the ability to protect the integrity of old houses for generations to come.”

It may take a small revolution, but it seems like New Englanders are starting to view solar panels through the traditional lens of common sense.

Will Kessler is a NABCEP PV installer for ReVision Energy, which has offices in Portland and Liberty, Maine, and in Exeter, N.H. (


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