Progress in Historic Preservation


A solar developer working in a historic district is often confronted with a hurdle called “contextual appropriateness.” The process for approval by the HAHJ (Historical Authority Having Jurisdiction) may be barely navigable. The agency may scrutinize roof layouts, roof-to-panel standoff distance and even the color of the photovoltaic (PV) cells.

Russman Law Office Building
The Russman Law Office in Exeter, N.H., boasts a 4.8-kilowatt 
photovoltaic system that feeds an SMA/SunPower 4000 inverter.
The system is expected to provide a net surplus of electric power. 
Photo: Will Kessler

To save the project, the applicant may have to reduce the array size and paint all hardware black. It is not easy, finding solar panels that blend in with architecture of the Revolutionary War era. But something has changed in New England.

In the spring of 2011, Richard Russman wanted to buy a solar array for his law office in Exeter, N.H., to offset 100 percent of the load.

We proposed 20 SunPower 240-watt modules filling the main rooftop. That rooftop is visible from most of Exeter’s Historic District. You can see it from the post office, from the buildings of the Phillips Exeter Academy (established in 1781) and from the Congregational Church (built in 1798). Exeter was the original capital of New Hampshire; we expected opposition.

To our surprise, the Exeter Historic District Commission approved the project unanimously. One of the commissioners even echoed a letter written in support of the project saying, “The point is not to turn Exeter into an Old Sturbridge Village, but to make sure we preserve a sense of history while moving forward.”

The town is moving forward. The local utility, Unitil, is required to provide the customer reimbursement for avoided electricity costs under New Hampshire’s net-generation statute, HB 1353. Now, with 4.8 kilowatts on the roof feeding an SMA/SunPower 4000 inverter, the old Russman Law Office should provide a net surplus of electric power.

I meet more and more people in historic areas looking to fix their long-term costs, offset pollution from unsustainable energy sources and looking hopefully toward local historic commissions for a progressive view. James Bruni now has a solar thermal array on his property in the historic West End of Portland, Maine, and he notes that the money it saves goes into the budget for building maintenance and preservation. There’s a small revolution afoot: New Englanders are starting to view solar panels through the traditional lens of common sense.

Will Kessler is a NABCEP PV installer for ReVision Energy, which has offices in Portland and Liberty, Maine, and in Exeter, N.H. (

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