Students Lutz Steiner, left, and Henning Zimmer of Team Germany, set the last solar panel on their team's house during the 2009 U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

Students Lutz Steiner, left, and Henning Zimmer of Team Germany, set the last solar panel on their team's house during the 2009 U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

For years, the D.C. Historic Preservation Review Board rejected permit requests for front-facing solar panels visible from the street in historic neighborhoods across the district.

A set of new sustainability guidelines for historic buildings could change how the board evaluates solar panels, bringing the city closer to its commitment to renewable energy by 2032.

Some say the 70-page document is a step forward, and others say it doesn’t go far enough.

Is historic preservation really about history? Or is it more about preserving the lifestyle of the affluent urban elite?

Produced by Victoria Chamberlin

Guests

  • Tommy Wells Director, D.C. Department of Energy and Environment
  • Rachel Kurzius Senior Editor, DCist; @Curious_Kurz
  • Steven Preister Resident, Takoma, D.C.

Transcript

  • 12:40:02

    SASHA-ANN SIMONSI'm Sasha-Ann Simons, sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi. For years, the D.C. Historic Preservation Board rejected permit requests for front-facing solar panels visible from the street in historic neighborhoods across the District. A set of new sustainability guidelines for historic properties could change how the board evaluates solar panels, bringing the city closer to its commitment to 100 percent renewable energy sources by 2032.

  • 12:40:27

    SASHA-ANN SIMONSSome say the 70-page document is a step forward. Others say it doesn't go far enough. What are the costs of historic preservation? Is it really about preserving history, or is it more about preserving the lifestyle of the affluent urban elite? Joining me now to discuss are Tommy Wells. He's the director of D.C.'s Department of Energy and the Environment. Hi, Tommy.

  • 12:40:47

    TOMMY WELLSHi. Thanks for having us on.

  • 12:40:49

    SIMONSOf course. Rachel Kurzius is senior editor at DCist. Welcome back to the Kojo Nnamdi Show, Rachel.

  • 12:40:54

    RACHEL KURZIUSThank you so much.

  • 12:40:55

    SIMONSAnd Steven Preister is a Tacoma resident. Hi, Steven.

  • 12:40:58

    STEVEN PREISTERHi. It's Preister.

  • 12:40:59

    SIMONSPreister.

  • 12:40:59

    PREISTERMm-hmm.

  • 12:41:00

    SIMONSWell, thank you. My apologies, there. I'll start with you, Rachel. You've reported on this issue, of course, several times over the last year, including attending Historic Preservation Board meetings. What's the Historic Preservation Review Board and why does this group care so much about solar panels being visible from the street?

  • 12:41:16

    KURZIUSSo, the Historic Preservation Review Board is a group of nine people appointed by the mayor. They have different areas of expertise. Some of them are interested in architecture, archeology, history, etcetera. And the idea is when it comes to D.C.'s historic landmarks, and when it comes to D.C.'s historic district, of which there are more than three dozen, which is a lot for a city of D.C.'s size, those areas need to go through additional bureaucratic hurdles to determine basically can things change for them, right.

  • 12:41:47

    KURZIUSLike I'll give the U.S. Capitol as an example, even though that's a federal building. Let's say one day we decided, let's paint it florescent pink. The Historic Preservation Review Board might stop you and say, wait a second. That's not exactly in keeping with the character of this building, and it doesn't preserve it in history. So that's the job of the Historic Preservation Review Board and the Historic Preservation office, which supports them.

  • 12:42:14

    SIMONSSo, why do they care so much about solar panels being visible from the street?

  • 12:42:17

    KURZIUSYes, great question. So, that gets us back to this idea of the historic character of the neighborhood. So, solar panels didn't exist 100 years ago, so a lot of people on the Historic Preservation Review Board argue, if those solar panels didn't exist then when we look at the character of this neighborhood, it doesn't quite reflect how we imagine this district to look.

  • 12:42:41

    SIMONSHow willing has the board been, Rachel, to work with residents on ways to make their solar panels compatible?

  • 12:42:48

    KURZIUSSolar Panels, as an idea, have really only become more popular in the past decade-and-a-half. And so the Historic Preservation Review Board has really had to revise its ideas about solar panels in real time. So, there's a different between solar panels that Steve had prior, which were in places that you couldn't see from the street, and the idea of these front-facing solar panels, which are very, very visible.

  • 12:43:12

    KURZIUSAnd, over time, if you ask the people from the Historic Preservation office, they say we've only denied two overall. But a lot of people know that because that board is so sour on the idea of front-facing panels, they don't even want to bother going through the bureaucracy. So, there's a little bit of a freeze out where people say, I'm not even going to try.

  • 12:43:35

    SIMONSNow, Steven, you're a resident of Tacoma D.C. and your front-facing solar panels were somewhat of a catalyst for change. Can you describe the process that you went through to get your final application approved in December? I know there was a lot of back and forth there.

  • 12:43:49

    PREISTERYes. I had solar panels, as Rachel said, on the back of my house. That was not a problem. There's 24 of them there. I went back in 2018 and said, now is the time. Can I put them on the front of the house? And they said no but we'll compromise and let you put them on flat portions of the front of your house. So, the porch roof and the dormer roof, I have 11 panels there. You basically can't see them from the street.

  • 12:44:16

    SIMONSBut not your main roof.

  • 12:44:18

    PREISTERNot my main roof.

  • 12:44:18

    SIMONSThey have an issue with that.

  • 12:44:20

    PREISTERSo, I went back again in October of 2019 and said, you know, I think this has become very urgent. And I talked about the 2032 legislation that the D.C. government passed and is now law, that by 2032, you cannot use electricity generated from fossil fuel or coal. And I said, you're not going to make that if you -- there are 37 historic districts in D.C., that's 30,000 homes, and you're not going to allow solar panels on the front of any of those homes? You're not going to make it.

  • 12:44:58

    PREISTERAt that meeting three of the board members said, well, there is a technology that we might approve but they wouldn't say what it was. I've learned later is because you can't endorse a product.

  • 12:45:08

    SIMONSI see. And we'll get more into...

  • 12:45:12

    PREISTEROkay.

  • 12:45:12

    SIMONS...what they did finally approve. But tell us, has your odyssey made your neighbors think twice before submitting their own applications for solar panels?

  • 12:45:21

    PREISTERWell, you know, the city's divided into advisory neighborhood commissions. And my commission required me, when I started this, to go canvas all 11 other houses on my block. And they universally said, yes, we support you, please do it. And then I said, well, why don't you do it? And they said, no, we're waiting to see what happens to you.

  • 12:45:42

    SIMONSOh, wow. Okay. (laugh) And a real guinea pig of the neighborhood. Now, Rachel, just break this down for us. As a result of the challenges like what Steven faced, the Historic Preservation Board made some changes and issued a new sustainability guide for historic buildings. So, what can residents expect from those guidelines?

  • 12:46:02

    KURZIUSWell, those guidelines have actually been in the works for a really long time. Tommy can talk to you a little bit more about that process. But it's funny that in the 70-page document, that's about all different ways that homeowners in historic districts can make their homes more sustainable, a couple of paragraphs on one page were really the ones that lit people aflame and got really excited. And those were the ones about solar panels.

  • 12:46:25

    KURZIUSAnd, basically, what those say is that rather than having a kind of yes, no policy if it's front-facing, if you can see it from the street no way, it now says, basically, they can come before the board. And the board will figure out how it can be a little bit easier on the eyes but still allowed. Because for Steve, for instance, his best sun -- I mean, you can't move the sun, right. I mean, it moves itself throughout the day but you can't move it. And so his roof on his front-facing slope, is where all the best sun was.

  • 12:46:58

    KURZIUSAnd so the board is going to take those sorts of instances into consideration when they're making those choices. And the idea is, once the board has a record of a couple of these decisions then the office can take over and people won't have to come before the board. It can be a little bit more standardized of a process.

  • 12:47:17

    SIMONSWe talked before about those neighbors and supportive folks in Steve's case. Erin Palmer tweets, she says: I'm the advisory neighborhood commissioner who represents part of the Tacoma history district. I'm proud to have supported Steve's application for front-facing visible solar panels on his home. In fact, our commission supported unanimously. And I also want to jump to the phone lines. We have Loretta on the line. Hi, Loretta. You're on the air.

  • 12:47:40

    LORETTAHi.

  • 12:47:41

    SIMONSHi.

  • 12:47:42

    LORETTAHi, this is Loretta Newman, (laugh) And I live in Tacoma and in the historic district. And I know Steve well and like him very much. In fact, I owned the house that he lives in now. I sold it to him in the 1980s. And I very much appreciated all the hard work he's done in bringing it up to -- you know, making it even better than when I was there. And he's done it in a very sensitive way.

  • 12:48:09

    LORETTASo, I have no complaints with him on historic preservation. And, in fact, I'm so pleased that we were able to come to a, you know, compromise on this front-facing solar panel that he wanted to put over the entire front. He already has solar panels on his front. He has them over the front porch and over the dormers, which you can see a little bit, but they're not very intrusive. And then he has them all over the back. So, it's not that he doesn't have solar panels, including in the front.

  • 12:48:39

    LORETTAWhat the compromise was, was to find a way to make them less visible. There's a skin kind of thing that will be used, and he agreed to do that, and we agreed. And I testified in support of it. I said, well you know, I'm hopeful that this will be a good test of this new kind of treatment, because if it works, then other ones can do it as well. But if it doesn't then we'll have learned our lesson but so be it. You know, I will hold my mouth whatever happens. Can I say one more thing, too?

  • 12:49:10

    SIMONSSure, but actually before that I have a question for you, Loretta. Why don't you like the earlier proposals?

  • 12:49:15

    LORETTAWell, they were so visible. I'd have to show you. I took pictures, and I saw the presentations. I testified at the HPRB, and his earlier one was much more visible. This new one has a skin that blends in with the existing roof. There's another house on the -- he's on Fifth Street. Further down about two blocks on Fifth Street at Dahlia, there was a house that's way up on a hill and it faces both Dahlia and Fifth Street.

  • 12:49:42

    LORETTAAnd it's big, and there's a high roof, pitched roof, facing the street. And HPRB approved their solar panels there. And, in fact, we didn't oppose it. In fact, that one I was out of town, but if I had gone there, I would not have opposed it, because it's less visible and today looks fine.

  • 12:50:01

    SIMONSWell, thank you for your call, Loretta.

  • 12:50:02

    LORETTASo, we're not against all solar...

  • 12:50:03

    SIMONSI apologize. We're running out of time. I do want to get our other guests who have been patiently waiting here in studio. Tommy Wells is the director of D.C.'s Department of Energy and Environment. Tommy, the District passed ambitious climate legislation in 2018 to move the city toward 100 percent sustainable energy by 2032. What role does solar play in this equation?

  • 12:50:22

    WELLSSo, the first thing is, I want to be careful that we not demonize the Historic Preservation Review Board. These are volunteers, experts that we've asked to preserve the historic character of probably one of the most important cities in the world. And we take our historic character very seriously.

  • 12:50:39

    WELLSBut, at the same time, as you know, Mayor Bowser has set some very ambitious goals to decarbonize our city to meet the climate mitigation goals and take this very seriously. And to meet the goals that are in the legislation that you just talked about, we're going to have to retrofit our city. And we're going to have to look at all of our rules and rethink our built environment in ways to retool the city to meet the goals, but also to have a more energy-efficient city.

  • 12:51:10

    WELLSAnd I can't say enough, the leadership of the mayor's team from Andrew Trueblood to others to really step up and say, okay, how are we going to do this and bring others along. Like, we're a big ship and we're turning it around as fast as we can. And there's going to be some bumps along the way, but it's happening. These are very ambitious goals, as Steve noted, as well. We take it very seriously.

  • 12:51:35

    SIMONSDistrict government energy programs like Solar For All are designed to help low-income residents install solar panels on their homes. But some say the Historic Preservation Review Boards are preventing residents in Anacostia and Kingman Park from having their solar permits approved. Have you seen any pushback from the board on applications for this program?

  • 12:51:53

    WELLSSo, we're working through it. I think that the mayor's been very clear about what her priorities are to generate energy from solar from within the District. The council passed a law that said 10 percent of the energy used in Washington, D.C. has to be generated by solar from within D.C. That's an incredibly ambitious goal. So, we have to look at all the surfaces across the whole city that can hold solar.

  • 12:52:20

    WELLSSo, on a case-by-case basis, I think the Historic Preservation Review Board is doing their best. I think they're coming along. But with guidance from, again, the office of planning, I think we're going to develop some records and decisions to move things far more quickly.

  • 12:52:35

    SIMONSIn order for Steven to have his permit approved, he had to pay an additional $1,000 to have the panels wrapped in camouflage. That's what he was hinting at earlier. Will policies like this disproportionately affect low-income residents who may not be able to afford these kinds of alterations?

  • 12:52:49

    WELLSWe have a lot of generous programs. D.C.'s the most generous of any jurisdiction in the nation of helping people put solar in their homes. And, in fact, we have a program that you're referring to, Solar For All where we put solar for free on homes occupied by low-income residents. So, we'll bear the cost. We'll help with that. The goal is to deploy solar. We're not going to allow this to slow us down. And we'll all work together. We can do this.

  • 12:53:15

    PREISTERCan I add something, here?

  • 12:53:16

    SIMONSYes, please.

  • 12:53:17

    PREISTERI'm really glad the board has changed their guidelines. It's a big help, but it's not enough. Those guidelines are going to be alive. They'll continue to change, but when I was -- before the meeting in December, I said to them, I think they needed to change their business model. I think they need to be proactive with the advisory neighborhood commissions, educate them in the 37 historic districts. Educate them about what historic districts can do to use solar, and then provide technical assistance to those homeowners. Unless we do that, we're not going to make that 10 percent, I don't believe.

  • 12:53:53

    SIMONSWe're going to jump to the phone lines, quickly. We have Mike on the line. Mike is in historic Capitol Hill. Hi, Mike.

  • 12:53:59

    MIKEHey.

  • 12:54:00

    SIMONSQuick question for us, please.

  • 12:54:02

    MIKEOkay. My point is that solar, right now, is being subsidized by alternative compliance payments that are put on all rate payers. Now, Steve's probably a really great guy, but he's got to payoff that was around four-and-a-half years, and it got stretched to maybe six years by needing to pay an extra $1,000 to skin his solar panels. But that payment is coming from every rate payer. So, already having 24 panels on your roof, do you really need the other 11? Why don't we spread the wealth?

  • 12:54:38

    MIKECommunity solar means that you can have solar panels that belong to you, that you don't need to have them on your roof. Solar For All says, hey, let's give some of the benefits of solar to people that might not be able to afford them.

  • 12:54:53

    SIMONSAnd I want to get a quick response in from Steve.

  • 12:54:55

    PREISTERWell, when I turn the corner and I see solar panels on people's houses, it really makes my heart jump. I think it's a great thing. I'd like to see homeowners, including in the historic districts, have as many solar panels as can fit on their space.

  • 12:55:09

    SIMONSTommy, what's the best way for residents to get started, if they think that they want to invest in solar panels for their homes?

  • 12:55:14

    WELLSWell, there's a couple ways to do it. One way, of course, is go to our website at doee.dc.gov, and then we can respond to them. But the other way to do it is to call an installer. Find out from Steve or someone else that has a good experience with an installer. The installers in D.C. are very knowledgeable about all the different finance programs. And you can generally get solar on your roof without even an upfront payment, but you don't get as much return for a period of time. There's a lot of different ways to do this. Our solar installers in D.C., and we have a lot of them, can -- I think you want to hear from more than one, obviously. But the solar installers can help you figure it out.

  • 12:55:54

    SIMONSI imagine, Rachel, you're going to be following the rest of this journey. (laugh)

  • 12:55:57

    KURZIUSYeah, absolutely. It's such a fascinating question between what are we trying to preserve, right? Are we trying to preserve buildings? Are we trying to preserve the environment? Can we do both?

  • 12:56:07

    SIMONSThis conversation about solar panels and historic preservation was produced by Victoria Chamberlin. And our conversation with baking champion Brother Andrew was produced by Lauren Markoe. Mark your calendars for the next Kojo in Your Community conversation about changing immigration policies and their impact on local students and families. It's on February 25th, at the Columbia Heights educational campus. Learn how to get tickets and more at kojoshow.org.

  • 12:56:32

    SIMONSComing up tomorrow, on The Politics Hour, Montgomery County Councilmember Nancy Navarro, Arlington County Board Chair Libby Garvey and the Maryland special primary to fill Elijah Cumming's congressional seat. That all starts tomorrow, at noon, on The Politics Hour. Until then, thank you for listening. I'm Sasha-Ann Simons, sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi.

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