Greenovation: Solar Panels Hit Some Red Tape

  • An artists rendering of the solar panels to be installed on Matt Grocoff's historic home. Matt is working to make his home the oldest net-zero-energy house in America, but he had to get by the historic district first. (Image courtesy of Matt Grocoff)

We’ve been following Greenovation TV’s Matt Grocoff recently in his attempt to make his home the oldest net-zero-energy house in America. That means the house would use no more energy that it produces. Reporter Lester Graham found out that Matt recently faced a big hurdle.

National Trust for Historic Preservation’s position statement on solar

American Solar Energy Society

More from the Greenovation Series


Matt Grocoff already has done a lot to make his home energy efficient. He’s insulated, tightened, and installed really efficient heating and cooling in his 110 year old house in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Having reduced his energy use, he was ready to start installing a way to produce energy: solar panels.

But Matt faced an obstacle. His home is in a historic district. Before he could install solar panels, he had to get permission from the historic district commission.

Historic district commissions across the country have really balked at solar panels on the roof. Generally, they frown on modern elements that can be seen from the street. Matt wated to cover almost all of his south-facing roof with solar panels, and yes, they would be visible from the street.

He did his homework and sent detailed drawings and illustrations to the commission. Got the least obtrusive (and more expensive) kind of solar panels, and got the historic district’s attention. Lisa Rozmarek was the first commissioner to speak:

“It’s good for the environment. It’s good for our city. And I think we should promote sustainable building practices within our historic districts. It’s the only way we can move forward into the future instead of being accused of staying in the past.”

When Matt go up to testify, it was looking pretty good. He knew the commissioners were concerned about how it would look, but they seemed open to the idea of allowing renewable energy installations:

“And I’m really excited because not every historic commission has been this progressive. There have been some cases where historic commissions have demanded that someone remove a $60,000 system from the roof.”

The commissioners had some pretty good questions about different types of solar panels and their appearances and Matt had brought along the solar panel sales guy to handle some of those questions.

After the vote, the solar panels were approved. I caught Darren Griffith with Mechanical Energy Systems in the hall and asked are all historic district commissions were that receptive:

“I think as more commissions around the country realize that the energy savings really add money to preserve more structures, I think you’ll begin to see change loosening a little bit from some of the commissions.”

That might be a little optimistic, but the homeowner, Matt Grocoff, was pretty happy boy.

He thinks one of the things that worked in his favor was this: some homeowners want to put up the solar panels first, before they do what they can to make the home energy efficient, like fixing windows, adding insulation. The want what Matt calls “green bling.” Putting up those solar panels as a statement, letting everyone see they’re green. Matt says you have to reduce your energy consumption first:

“Reduce, reduce, and then produce.”

Lester Graham: “I think one of the key elements for them wasn’t so much the aesthetics or the appearance, but the fact that you weren’t going to be doing any permanent damage to the structure.”

Matt Grocoff:“And yet there’s a lot of historic districts throughout the country now who are actually denying people permits to put solar on the roof when you can see it from the street even though it’s not a permanent part of the structure and I think it’s a really bad way to go. And it’s a great thing here in Ann Arbor that we’ve got this very, very progressive commission that’s moving forward. And frankly, I think they’re going to be setting an example for the rest of the country on this.

Lester Graham, The Environment Report.