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Solar: take time to “get it right”

By Staff | Dec 16, 2011

I appreciated the Historic Landmarks Commission addressing the issue of solar development in Shepherdstown at their recent meeting (Mon., Dec. 12). There is no doubt that is an important and complex issue, and that it will take time to “get it right” for our town. It was clear that everyone in attendance understands why clean energy is important and that no one wants to degrade the historic attributes of our town.
We made progress on several fronts. For instance, there was considerable interest in the idea of a “solar garden,” possibly to be located on Town property. This kind of project could transform Shepherdstown into a clean energy leader for the nation. Think of it: we could launch a solar energy co-op to fuel our town where partners would purchase a share of solar production to be repaid by credits to their energy bill over time. It’s a noble goal, and certainly worth pursuing.
However exciting as this may be, this discussion avoided the current question before the HLC: how do we revise the historic district guidelines to facilitate solar development while protecting historic values? And so we ended the meeting close to where we began, with HLC members requesting more information. This seems reasonable given the complexities of the issue, and certainly additional information on solar panel color and mounting options could help move the discussion forward.
But it also must be said that no amount of additional information can address the fundamental issues of aesthetics and values at stake. Underneath the technical details, we find the more difficult and important questions: how much do we value energy independence and historic preservation? Do we believe that citizens have a fundamental right to harvest the sun instead of burning coal? And how should one’s individual rights be constrained by our obligations to the larger community?
Of course there are no mathematical solutions to these questions, but only a set of opinions that changes as fast as the composition of people in the room. So how do we move forward? Let me propose three specific options to consider.
First, efficiency trade-offs: if a less-visible option for rooftop solar panels is available on a property, it could be required if the efficiency loss is <10% from the primary location. Second, solar panel design: black panels and frames on a black roof would minimize visual effects, and although dark frames decrease productivity slightly (due to increased temperatures), such trade-offs may be reasonable. Third, location: perhaps German Street should be treated differently than the rest of Town.