That’s Not Ugly
The aesthetic hurdles of renewable energy.
Sometimes barriers to the growth of renewable energy are political. The cost premium, perceived or real, can be another issue. In some cases, projects stall because people just don’t like the look of renewable energy.
I don’t think there is any exterior mechanical device on earth uglier than the through-the-window, window-shaker, air-conditioning unit. They are loud, inefficient, cheap-looking and frequently drip condensate down to the ground below. Most people walking down a street probably don’t even notice these window-shakers. Maybe some people think these boxes look great. Instead, the boxes probably just blend into the background because they are common and expected objects in our daily lives.
Solar and wind are not yet common and expected. When I drive cross country and pass a wind farm or big solar array, it catches my attention. I imagine if I drove down that same road every day, the renewables would fade into the background of my life.
Let’s say the look of a solar panel doesn’t bother you, and you want to harvest free energy. What do you need to know to be allowed to put solar on your own home? First, always talk to your local utility company if you plan on plugging anything into the grid before you do anything else. If you own your building and aren’t tied into a homeowners association in some aspect, you may not need anyone’s approval.
Some homeowners associations can add red tape to a solar installation. In areas where a HOA governs the aesthetics of all the buildings in a complex, adding anything new to the exterior of the building may be an issue, especially if you want to add wind or solar to your structure. In many HOA cases, you may be required to get board and even city approvals to install these items.
A common misconception is that solar panels bring down the value of a home and neighborhood. The appraisal price penalty is frequently quoted by critics of home solar as a reason to ban it. A Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory study found, “Home buyers consistently have been willing to pay more for a property with PV (solar) across a variety of states, housing and PV markets, and home types. Average market premiums across the full sample of homes analyzed here are about $4/W or $15,000 for an average-sized 3.6-kW PV system.”
If you do want to go solar, know your rights. SolarResourceGuide.org has a good overview of the different state rules for solar in the U.S. Some states have solar access laws that don’t let HOAs prohibit you from installing solar, assuming you own the roof. Condo owners may not have the freedom to poke holes in a shared roof, however.
Some states have solar easement laws, which means if you get permission to put a panel up, your HOA can’t change its mind and ask you to remove it later. Ten states don’t have these types of solar access rights.
In one of the mountain towns that I used to work in, you would have to get anything that alters the exterior of a historic building approved with the historical society, down to the specific model of vent kit. This complicated condensing boiler retrofits. Non-condensing boiler vents weren’t necessarily great-looking, but they were expected. A small gray or white plastic pipe sticking up through the roof was something new. This particular town had a fairly strict energy code, so a boiler replacement could become a bit of a tug of war with the historical society and boiler inspectors.
SolarCity developed one of my favorite new projects in the solar industry. They unveiled a solar roof tile that contains photovoltaic cells in 2016. They solved the problem of making solar disappear. They also made it easier for you to cover all available roof space with solar, not just rectangular blocks on a sloped roof.
In some cases, even pro-renewable energy advocates fall into the ‘not in my backyard’ argument. One of the highest profile, and strangest, arguments related to the sight of renewables is near Cape Cod. ABC News described the two sides of the battle: “On one side are the Humane Society, the International Fund for Animal Welfare, the International Wildlife Coalition and environmental lawyer Robert F. Kennedy Jr., among others. On the other side are groups that might normally be considered allies, including the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Union of Concerned Scientists and Greenpeace.”
Robert Kennedy Jr. argued that, “People want to look out and see what the pilgrims saw.” That is an interesting way to say ‘not in my backyard.’ Also, at the rate the USGS says the shores of Cape Cod are eroding, the exact sites of all the big Cape houses in question may have been in the woods when the pilgrims landed. Even the richest people on earth would have trouble recreating a 1620 view of anything.
The people lobbying for wind farming off Cape Cod argued that there is a great, strong breeze. Also, the towers in the ocean don’t take up usable real estate. What better way to provide clean power for the area?
The interests against the project cited two common complaints of wind. The towers ruin a good view, and they are bird-killing machines. Sadly, early windmills like the farm at Altamont Pass in California were just that.
ABC News writes, “ … 182 birds were killed over a two-year period ending in 1992. The dead birds included five bald eagles and 114 other birds of prey. Since those studies, researchers have learned that a lattice structure used at the Altamont plant increased the risk of bird deaths since birds used the structures to nest and then were caught in the blades.” Modern turbines have lattice-free, longer, slower-turning blades to give birds more time to react.
I would hope that most people could agree that bird murder is bad and should be avoided. Those same people may also agree that a set of toothpick-sized towers on the horizon of your beach house isn’t the worst thing that could possibly happen to you. Most renewable power objections are possible to overcome; interestingly, aesthetics are one of the hardest to overcome.
During the 2016 Super Bowl, Toyota aired a commercial that aimed to make the new model of Prius look cooler. Some have argued that past models were too boxy and frumpy. The commercial featured three guys from HBO’s “The Wire,” using the Prius as a getaway from a bank robbery, because that’s cool. The car itself is a really good hybrid, it just hasn’t always been considered really good-looking.
If a visible solar panel would indeed ruin everything for your neighbors, consider pooling a few people and investing in a solar garden or buy wind offsets from your utility company. That may be the best compromise between you and your neighbors.
For a number of people, renewables and energy efficiency are cool enough to be seen with by the people driving down your street. An electric BMW car and a SolarCity roof give you the option to subtly commit to using less energy. It will be interesting to see if in the future we have to create less eye-catching ways to install renewable energies or if the current designs start to fade into the background.
Max Rohr is a graduate of the University of Utah. He is the REHAU Construction Academy manager in Leesburg, Virginia. He has worked in the hydronics and solar industry for 16 years in the installation, sales and marketing sectors. Rohr is the Radiant Professional Alliance (RPA) Education Committee chairman. He can be reached by email at email@example.com and on Twitter at @maxjrohr.