June 27, 2013

Powering Historic Buildings: Solar Panel Projects Around the Country

  • By: Guest Writer
Written by Chris Warren for Preservation magazine

Solar panel installation at Mystic Seaport Collections Research Center. The brick parapet is visible in the background. Credit: Mystic Seaport
Solar panel installation at Mystic Seaport Collections Research Center. The brick parapet is visible in the background.

As covered in the Summer 2013 issue of Preservation magazine, it would be hard to come up with a more high-profile and historically significant place to install solar panels than Alcatraz Island in the San Francisco Bay. But as the price of solar panels and equipment continues to fall and people generally get more comfortable with this source of clean energy, it no longer requires a large chunk of federal dollars (which was the case with Alcatraz) and years of effort for historic buildings to tap the sun to meet their electricity needs.

For instance, this past winter and spring the Mystic Seaport in Connecticut installed a 230-kilowatt solar power plant -- just under 1,000 panels -- on the roof of an old mill building that houses the museum’s collections and some administrative offices. As is so often the case, the impetus to cover 43,000 square feet of the 1800s-era building with solar panels was both environmental and economic.

“It will generate 10 percent of the power the mill uses,” says Ken Wilson, the director of facilities at the Seaport, who notes that the electricity produced will be cheaper than what would otherwise be available from the utility. “And it’s an attempt to move in a more green direction.”

At the Seaport, Wilson says the museum worked closely with the town of Stonington to address any historic preservation concerns. The main issue was whether or not the panels could be seen. In this case, it was not a problem because the building still had an original brick parapet shielding the panels from view.

This former Ford Motor Company plant is now a SunPower Corporation facility in Richmond, Calif. Credit: Max Nathan, Flickr
This former Ford Motor Company plant is now a SunPower Corporation facility in Richmond, Calif.

Elsewhere around the country, solar panels are helping provide electricity to both historic residences and commercial buildings. In Richmond, California, a former Ford Motor Company Assembly Plant that churned out Model A cars in the 1930s is not only covered with solar panels, it has also become a facility for SunPower Corporation, one of the leading makers of panels. In Bethesda, Maryland, a local landmark known as the Sycamore Store added solar panels in such a way that they are actually visible from the street.

Clearly, individual circumstances and concerns about the impact of transforming an historic building into a solar power plant are highly specific -- sometimes it’s appropriate, and sometimes it’s not. But the sort of give and take that goes into these decisions is hardly foreign to the companies that install solar panels, accustomed as they are to customers who voice their opinion about a project’s visual impact.

“We in the solar industry are well-prepared to deal with these things,” says Gary Gerber, president of California-based Sun Light & Power. “We have run into these situations enough that it’s not far out of our wheelhouse.”

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