SOME THOUGHTS ON SOLAR PANELS IN HISTORIC DISTRICTS

Today the New Orleans City Council overturned a ruling by the Vieux Carre Commission that denied a homeowner from installing solar panels onto the roof of his house. 

The more about the council’s ruling be read here:  http://www.nola.com/business/index.ssf/2011/01/new_orleans_city_council_appro.html

The insertion of solar panels into historic districts has been compared to air conditioning equipment, but there’s a big difference.  Air conditioning equipment can be hidden either behind a fence, landscaping, some kind of architectural screening device, or it can be located up on the roof where it is less visible.  A solar panel, on the other hand, can’t be hidden.  It must be on the main roof, and must be unobstructed so that it is best able to receive sunlight.  This means that any attempt to hide or screen a solar panel could effectively reduce or eliminate its ability to generate electricity.  If the screening device casts a shadow across the panels, its ability to generate power is severely reduced.

If we accept that future energy demands will require solar panels to be visibly installed on roofs, then the panels must be designed so that they don’t compromise the building’s aesthetics.

Some attempts have been made to integrate solar panels into a roof system.  For example, a company, Uni-Solar, manufactures “solar shingles” that can be installed with a shingle roof:  http://www.uni-solar.com/products/residential-products/powershingle/  The same company also makes a product that can be bonded onto a standing seam metal roof in between the metal seams or battens called Power Bond, which can be seen here:  http://www.uni-solar.com/products/commercial-products/pvl/  Finally, there is a company that manufactures Sole Power Tiles, a barrel shaped solar tile that is installed with a clay tile roof.  That product is sold with US Tile, a manufacturer of barrel clay tiles and can be seen here:  http://www.ustile.com/Pages.aspx/Sol-Power-Tile  That’s it!

The thin film solar products such as the solar shingles, Power Bond and Sole Power Tiles are a small segment of the solar panel industry.  The larger segment of the industry is the manufacture of large solar cell panels that are installed in large modules, either on the south facing slope of the roof (North facing slope on the other side of the equator), or on a rack-like structure that sits on top of a flat roof to provide the desired angle facing the sun.  When it comes to the manufacture of large modular solar cells or collectors, there has been little effort to factor aesthetics into the design.  Perhaps the technology will become more advanced in the future so that smaller panels can be manufactured to produce the same energy output as the larger panels.  This would allow smaller panels on a secondary roof rather than having the entire south side of the roof dominated by solar panels.  I would also wish for panels that can be used in ambient light instead of direct light.  This would allow them to be installed on any side of the roof and slight shading by screening devices would not be such a problem.  Unfortunately, the technology is not available for the smaller-but-equal power output panels, or the panels sensitive enough to function in ambient light, but here’s what can be done now, today if the manufacturer’s would cooperate.

 MAKE CUSTOM SIZED AND SHAPED SOLAR PANELS!

Roofs are all different sizes and shapes, however, if I want to install a bank of solar panels onto my roof, I have to purchase the one-size-fits all panels and arrange them into a big rectangular block onto my roof.  If I have a hipped roof, the rectangular block superimposed onto the trapezoid shape of the roof looks strange, but not as bad as having more panels that have to be staggered at the hips and valleys.  So why can’t they manufacture trapezoid, triangular, parallelogram or clipped-corner-rectangular shaped solar panels to fit any roof shape?  Why not have the solar panel manufacturer field measure the roof after its framed, provide a set of shop drawings showing how the custom sized panels will fit onto the roof, and then custom manufacture the panels to fit my roof?  Perhaps the solar panels can also be custom manufactured so that roof penetrations, such as plumbing vents and exhaust vents, can extend through pre-cut holes within the panels.

I can only wish.  Until then I will design solar powered roofs only when requested (or demanded.)

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