Other voices: Historic solar homes are increasingly popular

Published 12:00 am Thursday, May 26, 2022

For most of us, the term “historic neighborhood” probably conjures visions of steep, gabled roofs, turrets, spacious front porches and shutters that actually open and close.

Not rooftop solar panels.

But as the need for, and the popularity of, solar energy increases, that appears to be changing.

Consider the solar panels atop the Queen Ann-style house, built in 1901 in Winston-Salem’s historic West End neighborhood, that Matt Giegengack and his wife, Claire Calvin, added as only one among several steps their family has taken toward more sustainable lifestyles. (They also raise chickens, grow their own vegetables and compost in their backyard, not to mention Matt’s purchase of a Tesla electric vehicle and his installation of a home charging station.)

Or similar panels on a 19th-century Greensboro home owned by Tim Lindeman and his wife Nancy Walker.

As John Deem reported recently in the Journal, there’s a growing number of historic homes in the Triad that have solar panels on their roofs.

In fact, as Deem also reported earlier this month, 177 Triad residents planned to go solar in April, according to N.C. Utilities Commission documents.

You wouldn’t exactly call it a green tsunami. But it could be the beginning of a hopeful trend.

By the end of 2021, 512 Winston-Salem residents had installed solar panels in their homes; 535 in Greensboro.

The advent of the panels in historic neighborhoods is positive proof that the panels can coexist with historic preservation.

In Giegengack’s case, the contractor contacted the Forsyth County Historic Landmarks Commission for approval — that is, what is called “a certificate of appropriateness.”

The panels, mounted in the front of the house, were approved on the third try, after the initially proposed total of 29 panels was reduced to 15.

In Lindeman’s case, approval came after the fact, but the panels on his house are largely hidden from view because they are flush-mounted on the rear roof, like neatly arranged rows of blue dominoes.

In both instances, someone had to be among the first … to take something that initially might seem out of place — remember when cars first were required to have three brake lights? — but gradually becomes normal with changing customs and design refinements.

And, unlike Lindeman and Walker, Giegengack has seen savings immediately.

That because his home’s panels provide more electricity than the house requires and the excess amount goes to the power grid. Duke Energy, in turn, pays him a credit for that power.

That’s all well and good, says Giegengack, an ophthalmologist and professor at Wake Forest University Medical School, but like Lindeman and Walker, he wasn’t in it for the money.

“I decided to do it because it was cool and it was easy and it was a good thing to do,” Giegengack said. “I didn’t do it because I needed the extra money every month. I mean, I like that, but that wasn’t the motivation.”

Either way, it’s a win.

Whether all of us care to acknowledge it or not, climate change is here and now, not a looming threat in the future. You might have seen the recent story about beachfront houses in North Carolina falling into the Atlantic.

A fair warning, however: The science (and politics) of sustainability can be complicated. Green approaches don’t always work in older structures. For one thing, some older construction materials are not compatible with today’s technology.

Further, Duke Energy has proposed to the N.C. Utilities Commission that it be allowed to pay a lower rate in excess solar electricity credits. This means a longer wait for homeowners on a return on their investment.

That said, the new momentum toward residential solar, as well as other alternative energy sources, is welcome, if overdue, in North Carolina. History and sustainability are finding more and more common ground. For instance, as John Deem also has reported, the Forsyth County Historical Resources Commission in 2020 revised design standards for the West End community to include reviews of electric charges and environmentally friendlier building materials.

And why shouldn’t it? Isn’t protecting the planet, which is home to us all, the ultimate form of historic preservation?

— Winston Salem-Journal