Strict historic preservation codes often favor aesthetic interests over energy-saving initiatives like solar panels

… but the material and financial considerations play a part, too.

As the price of solar panels has plummeted over the last decade, historic zoning restrictions have become a roadblock to their implementation in many municipalities. Cities like Charleston and New Orleans, which have some of the oldest historic districts in the country, restrict visible solar in some neighborhoods, and suburban municipalities in Illinois and Massachusetts have outright blocked solar developments on aesthetic grounds.

The tensions are most apparent in cities like Santa Fe1 and Washington, DC2, which have declared climate emergencies. Santa Fe passed a resolution in 2018 that pledged to eliminate the city’s emissions by 2040, and DC’s parallel declaration specifically mandates that 10% of electricity come from rooftop solar by 2032. Meanwhile, nearly a fifth of DC’s buildings have a historic designation, which means that any solar developments must go through the historic review office.


  • 1. The aesthetic visions codified in the historic districts often serve material goals. Santa Fe’s historic Eastside was created in 1967 as the culmination of a 50 year push to, in the words of historian Chris Wilson, “transform [Santa Fe] into a harmonious Pueblo-Spanish fantasy through speculative restoration.” From 1912 onward, historic buildings that didn’t fit the mold were torn down and replaced with the buff-walled, tile-trimmed hallmarks of what’s now known as the “New-Old Santa Fe Style.”
  • 2. Washington, DC’s historic districts expanded in the ’60s as part of a national “urban pioneering” movement, and while credited with reenergizing some historic areas, the expansion has also been accused of pushing out black residents.Which means that the tradeoff between solar development and historic charm may really be about weighing material benefits. On the one hand is climate change mitigation, and on the other is marketability.