From the street, it’s hard to see why a fuss is being made over the solar panels Glade Bilby wants to install on the roof of his 19th-century home at the edge of New Orleans’ historic French Quarter. In fact, it would be hard to see the panels themselves once they’re installed.

That’s why Bilby argues the city shouldn’t keep him from installing the solar panels on his home, which was built in 1834 and revamped in 1859. His quest has become a clash in one of the oldest neighborhoods in the U.S.: environmentalism and energy efficiency versus historic preservation and aesthetics. City officials have said Bilby’s solar panels threaten the neighborhood’s historic architectural integrity.

“It’s a problem that’s popped up around the nation,” said Kimberly Kooles, of the National Trust for Historic Preservation in Washington, which has a website that features stories on the issue from Orange County, Calif., to Cape May, N.J., and points in between.

Tax incentives and rebate programs for solar installations, as well as continued worries about fuel prices and climate change, have increased interest in photovoltaic panels and heightened concerns over the effect on historic buildings, said James Hewat, a preservation planner for the city of Boulder, Colo.

Hewat said Boulder has helped to avoid controversy by developing guidelines on the use of solar panels on architecturally historic structures. Guildelines also are on the website of the National Trust and other agencies.

In New Orleans, the staff of city government’s Vieux Carre Commission is charged with protecting and preserving the architectural integrity of the Quarter. The commission evaluated Gilby’s plan to install the panels, citing information from Louisiana’s Historic Preservation Office and standards from the U.S. Interior Department.

The varying guidelines share a common theme: The solar panels should be low-profile and not easy to see.

And that’s Bilby’s plan. He wants to put the panels on the part of his three-story, stucco-covered brick home’s roof that slopes away from the street, making them invisible from the front. From the rear, the panels would be obscured by the low skyline of neighboring pitched slate roofs and dormers.

Obscured, but not invisible, said Richard Bishop, a French Quarter resident who spoke against allowing the panels during an autumn meeting of the Vieux Carre Commission.

“I really am a supporter for solar power,” Bishop, an electrical engineer and preservationist, said in a telephone interview last week. He talked at length of the need for alternative energy and the finite supply of fossil fuels. But, as for Bilby’s project: “This isn’t the place for that.”

Vieux Carre Commission members agreed, although it wasn’t a unanimous verdict. A 5-3 vote against the project came after the staff recommended conditional approval, calling Bilby’s proposal “environmentally conscious” and “sensitive to the building’s historic integrity” in a report dated Sept. 28.

But Dr. Ralph Lupin, the physician who chairs the commission, said he not only thought the Quarter’s historic integrity would be compromised, he also feared approval would lead to more such projects, according to minutes of the October meeting.

Bilby is appealing to the city council, which could take up the matter later this month.

“I’ve wanted to do this forever,” he said recently as he walked through the high-ceilinged home and noted other environmental improvements he’s added, including a drip irrigation system for plants and shutters to cover the tall windows that contribute to the ambiance, and the draftiness, of the house.

Loss of electrical power during Hurricane Katrina in 2005 added to his interest. Federal and Louisiana tax credits that would cover 80 percent of the $50,000 cost made the idea even more attractive, Bilby said. He estimated that savings on his electric bill would allow him to recoup his out-of-pocket cost over several years.

Besides, Bilby said, he’s long been interested in the environment.

“You hate to get into the cliche of, ‘Decrease your carbon footprint,’ but it is important,” he said.

Whatever the city council decides, the issue will hardly be resolved.

“It’s something that a lot of towns that have historic preservation programs are dealing with,” said Hewat, the planner in Boulder.

However, solar technology keeps improving — including the development of shingles that can absorb solar energy and less-obtrusive adhesive strips, Hewat said.

“You can put solar panels now in places where five years ago they just wouldn’t work, because if there was just a little bit of shade the whole thing would turn off,” Hewat said. “And that’s helped a lot. It’s aided in the ability to be flexible on both sides.” (Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

source: wwltv